Trust Emily Mingrone’s instinct. It’s what helped elevate her to the position of head chef at two of Fairfield County’s best restaurants, Match in South Norwalk and Jesup Hall in Westport. That same instinct led to a partnership with Shane McGowan as they went from coworkers to co-owners in the blink of an eye. And it’s also why you may have a difficult time finding a menu online for Mingrone’s first restaurant venture, Tavern on State in the East Rock neighborhood of New Haven.
The menu changes daily, and for different reasons. Mingrone may get her hands on something good and a new dish is born. Maybe a purveyor provides a product she’s not happy with and one dish comes off. An idea will come to her out of the blue and she’ll make something “brain to plate,” which sounds so much cooler than “farm to table.”
It’s stressful to have a constantly evolving menu, but the freedom with which it allows Mingrone to work her magic is worth the hassle, and the extra cost. “We print [the menus] in house, and it’s not that cheap to print every day,” says McGowan, who runs the beverage program and front-of-house operations. “We just decided to take on the cost ourselves because it is that important to us to have that kind of flexibility.”
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Mingrone says if you’re not flexible and don’t have the ability to think on your feet, frequent changes can be difficult. But that’s what she thrives on. It’s how she stays interested and engaged. “Our place is small enough and our staff is small enough that we are able to have regular intimate conversations about what I’m doing in the kitchen,” Mingrone says. “And they’re all really excited about it, so I think that’s 90 percent of the battle.”
Before launching back in June, Mingrone and McGowan had only worked together at Jesup Hall for six months. They would casually talk over shift drinks, sharing goals and aspirations. They both wanted to own a restaurant. The more they talked, the more they clicked. Mingrone had found a space and was “passively” looking for a partner. She invited McGowan along for a meeting about a liquor license and they ended up signing the paperwork that day.
Mingrone says sometimes you have to be impulsive and take chances, pulling the trigger at every step when it would be easier to put things off. “You’re never ready. You just know when you can’t work for anyone else anymore.” Some would argue Mingrone was born ready, and not just because her father is a chef.
Tavern on State is packed on a cold Saturday night in December. The space, which Mingrone describes as somewhere between small and medium, is dimly lit but not dark, cozy but not cramped. Everything is wood, from the floor to the ceiling, except for one wall of exposed brick.
Crispy pork belly with roasted squash and a maple sherry glaze is the first dish to arrive. Thick slabs of succulent belly sit atop rings of squash, and the pairing works beautifully beneath the glaze and toasted seeds. Up next is roasted bone marrow with orange-fennel glaze, pickled sunchokes and black bread. The rye on its own is more flavorful than any plain piece of bread deserves to be, but as a vessel for the sweet, buttery marrow, has found its true calling.
McGowan, whose business card says “barman,” presides over a comprehensive cocktail list. His experience in the beverage industry includes working six years at The Bar Downstairs in midtown Manhattan and starting his own cocktail consulting company where he traveled the world helping design bars and beverage programs. McGowan says wine is in no way an afterthought, but considering Tavern’s proximity to August and Cave à Vin, it didn’t need to be a focus. He just wanted wine that worked well with the food. That admission alone gives insight to how well Tavern gets along with its Upper State Street neighbors, and displays a confidence that belies a supposedly fledgling restaurant.
As for curating the beer list, McGowan leaves that up to his identical twin brother Kris. He’s the manager at Brewport in Bridgeport.
Our main courses confirm that all the buzz we’ve been hearing regarding one of the Elm City’s newest establishments is justified. Perfectly pan-seared scallops over turnip purée with chestnut jam, brown butter and Meyer lemon is a masterpiece. And sweet potato dumplings with cider-braised chicken, amaretti and sage is where fine dining and comfort food collide.
But Mingrone may have saved the best for last. For dessert we order lavender ice cream with honeycomb. Not overly sweet, she says she’s going for a balance of sweet, savory and floral, a more complex and nuanced meal-finisher than a decadent chocolate cake. The honeycomb complements the ice cream to make the dish more texturally interesting.
Mingrone and McGowan are truly onto something special, as evidenced by Tavern on State’s selection as Newcomer of the Year at the recent Connecticut Restaurant Association awards. “When this space [opened] up I knew it was it, just from the decor alone that we walked into,” Mingrone says. “It was exactly perfect for the concept that we wanted.”
Although it wasn’t the first time Mingrone had walked through the door. She used to frequent the place for happy hour back when it was C.O. Jones. Now it’s hers. It must have been her instinct that brought her back.
Tavern on State
969 State St., New Haven
475-202-6883, @tavernonstate on Facebook
Accessibility: Two small steps at front door
Price range: Starters $7-$14, small plates $13-$19, entrées $15-$39, desserts $12
Hours: Tue.-Thu. 4 p.m.-1 a.m., Fri. 4 p.m.-2 a.m., Sat. 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5 p.m.-2 a.m.,Sun. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Closed Mon.
Ambiance: Mingrone describes Tavern on State as approachable, staying true to the idea of a neighborhood hangout and watering hole that is often desired and rarely achieved. Mission accomplished here. Also, they screen a movie Thursday nights at 9.
Service: Mingrone says people who show up to work just to collect a paycheck are bothersome to her. The team she surrounded herself with is an extension of her. The staff is invested.
Food: An ingredients-driven, balanced menu with multiple flavor profiles where something appeals to everyone.