It’s a pretty bold move to name your restaurant after the town it’s in, especially with the word “The” before it. By calling itself “The Essex,” Colt Taylor’s new venture in the Centerbrook section of its namesake town is making something of a statement about the authoritative quality of its offerings. Across its menu, its decor, and its plans for the future, The Essex is entitled to the claim made by its name: the restaurant has the feel of familiarity and comfort, while orienting itself toward the upscale and the high end, much like this area of the Connecticut River Valley.
The collection of towns that hug the Connecticut River and Route 9 running south from Middletown to where the river empties into Long Island Sound have a unique quality to them. They are not overdeveloped with sprawl and mini-malls, but are packed with the type of cultural institutions that, when present in small towns, can create a beautiful sense of community. The towns along this section of the river are also intimately tied to that river, imbued with its soul.
Taylor says that in the five months after The Essex opened, the menu has changed some 15 times, but the one dish that has remained consistent captures the essence of that community: the bacon and clam noodles. A variation on the rich, deep flavors of kotteri ramen, the dish is centered around a 48-hour white pork broth, flavored with clam juice and peppered with clams and slabs of pork belly. The result is a dish that might be what ramen would look like if it had originated in coastal New England. “To me that’s the dish that symbolizes what we’re trying to do with the food here, which is we’re taking flavors of New England clam chowder and injecting them with a very traditional Japanese home-style cooking,” Taylor says.
30 Main St., Centerbrook
Price range: Appetizers $16-$18 (crispy fried Niantic Bay oysters $18, Caesar salad $16), entrées $21-$36 (bacon and clam noodles $28, porcini and scallop risotto $34), desserts $10.
Hours: Tue.-Sat. 5-10 p.m., Sun. noon-8 p.m., closed Mon.
Ambiance: Modern and minimalist, but with touches of comfortable familiarity.
Service: Taylor is known to sit down and have a chat with guests, and deliver the food himself. Wait staff is patient and helpful.
Food: Adventurous haute cuisine, but like the design, has familiar tastes spun into exotic creations.
Home-style is a pertinent word choice here, as the opening of The Essex is something of a homecoming for Taylor, whose cooking career has taken him from New York City to Los Angeles to Seattle to Miami. Taylor was thinking about opening a new place in Miami, but circumstances made him want to come back home to be closer to his family. (His first cooking job was at the now-closed Saybrook Fish House in Old Saybrook.)
The decor and atmosphere of the place, too, strives to hit the sweet spot between familiarity and the high end. The restaurant is laid out in an open format with a single large dining room wrapped around the open kitchen. From more or less any table in The Essex, a diner can see the full extent of the kitchen, as well as a bar area. Behind the bar is a mural, painted by Taylor’s mother, that reminds us, in case there was any doubt, this is Essex, Connecticut. Several other nautical-themed paintings are sprinkled throughout the room, and add a subtle local flavor, without belaboring the point. A fireplace provides a feeling of coziness.
While it may not be intended, the bar with its mural, the fireplace and the seafaring theme makes The Essex feel like a stripped-down, deconstructionist take on the Essex institution, the Griswold Inn. But Taylor doesn’t want diners to feel as though the design of the restaurant should make them feel anything less than utterly at home. “This is my super-casual, super-open, no-dress-code [place]. It’s built into an open kitchen and an open bar so that there’s energy pouring in from everywhere. … Just have fun. Be loud, be whatever,” he says.
In sections of the menu, too, Taylor deconstructs that which is familiar. For the Caesar salad, he takes apart the components and puts them back together for a salad that asks you to think about it a little bit more carefully. The anchovies in the salad are arrayed across the spears of lettuce in a way resembling sculpture as much as food.
On my visit, a dish that sounds like a Shoreline classic — fried oysters — is served with poblano pepper, soy, sesame and ginger, arrayed in a minimalist presentation that, once again, forces the diner to consider each ingredient.
While much of the menu is firmly in the fine-dining category in terms of its price point, The Essex offers several themed prix fixe menus throughout the week, all at relatively affordable levels. Tuesday is burger night, when $20 will get you a beer or glass of wine and a burger. Choose from an array of different and creative takes on the American staple. Wednesday is Italian night, when a $60-for-two prix fixe menu nets you an appetizer, entrée, dessert and (!) a bottle of wine. If the porcini and scallop risotto off the regular menu is any indication of The Essex’s confidence in its Italian dishes, diners are in for a treat. Going in the other direction pricewise, for $125 diners can have a one-on-one meeting with Taylor, in which he will design a multi-course tasting menu based on your own affinities and aversions. Taylor says he’ll serve anything between seven and 22 courses. (“Until you wave the white flag.”)
The dessert menu is a bit more restrained in its ambition, but is just as good. A cinnamon bun with ice cream and frosting was perfectly nice, and a chocolate-lover’s tasting plate had about as much chocolate variety as anyone could hope for.
At some point in early 2018, The Essex will open its kitchen even further, offering classes for 10-12 people from 4-6:15 p.m., when students will then serve the food they’ve cooked to friends or family. Taylor advises prospective students to check the website for details.
Not satisfied with goodies such as themed food nights and cooking classes? The Essex also has a market, just off the dining room floor, where you can buy local dairy, fresh baked bread, homemade gelato, and so on.
This article appeared in the January 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine.
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