Saturday, April 19, 2014

Sinfully Good Sips at South End in New Canaan

South End, a restaurant and bar in New Canaan, Connecticut, is a can't-miss spot no matter what your restaurant "must haves" are. From a casually upscale interior to Chef Nick Martschenko's menu of dishes that are so good you could just close your eyes, point, and be pleased, and a bar program that's a Fairfield County standout headed up by the charming Sean Nye, its no wonder that it's a hopping spot every day of the week.

While I could wax poetic about Chef Martschenko's cooking (Try the meatballs. Just do it.), my most recent visit focused exclusively on their cocktails. Sean Nye, the face of South End's inventive cocktail menu, treated me to a memorable flight of 5 drinks, some of which are new additions for spring, while others, like the bloody mary, are ongoing house favorites.

As Nye began mixing, grabbing bottles, clinking ice into glasses, shaking, and stirring, he explained some of the things that make the cocktails at South End unique. First, his personal philosophy that it's possible to make a great tasting drink that's still nice and boozy. It's not necessary to mask alcohol with syrupy sweetness or make a drink palatable for an inexperienced drinker by going light on it, but on the flip-side, he doesn't make drinks that feature alcohol as their primary flavor note. Lucky me, as my favorite drink is one where I know it's good and strong, but it's flavorful enough to be pleasant to drink. Yes, I can appreciate the flavors when drinking whiskey neat, but it's not something I find particularly pleasurable. 

The second standout element of the bar program at South End is the use of fresh and house-made ingredients. The bacon in the bloody mary is house smoked, the mix is made from scratch, and it's topped with bright green micro-cilantro. The pineapple juice in the Mai Tai isn't from a can, it's juiced right there. The difference is clear. You're drinking a quality product, made with care and thought. 

On to the drinks. First, a refreshing concoction (as of now, still unnamed - Nye takes the time to invent creative monikers, usually with a touch of sass or humor) of Giffard Pamplemousse Rose Liquer, Vizcaya Cristal Rum, and a touch of Hum Botanical Spirit. I was genuinely blown away by this one. The first sip tastes like the offspring of grapefruit juice and lemonade, and a second sip reveals the undertones of vanilla in the rum (oak barrel aged, then filtered so it's completely clear) and the interesting combination of hibiscus, ginger, cardamom and kaffir lime in the Hum Liqueur. It's the kind of drink that makes you pause and think as you try to discern all the things you're tasting. I've really never had anything like it, and I could really feel my brain cells firing as it tried to categorize the various elements. I'd happily buy a jug of this drink and then take it to a sunny field for the best picnic libation I have yet to encounter. Sangria, step aside! Chardonnay, to the left!

Next, in the spirit of cocktails meant for sunny days and warm breezes, Nye mixed a hibiscus margarita using a larger amount of the same Hum spirit he used in the previous drink. The difference was surprising; the ginger and hibiscus came through much more than the first drink, and of course, the color was gorgeous. It made for a great twist on a standard drink, and it would be all too easy to put away several of these at a rapid pace. It went perfectly with the fish tacos we had ordered for lunch. 

Next, an in-house barrel aged Manhattan that blows, but by, every other Manhattan I've had out of the water (and I've had quite a few, from California to Connecticut). After aging for several weeks in an oak barrel, the drink is smooth, drinkable, and complex, with a lightly sweet aftertaste. If you like Manhattans, get in the car now and order one. If you don't like them, you need to give this one a try.

Nothing like day drinking! Photo courtesy Jason Varga
Moving along, I tried two very popular drinks: a bloody mary, and a Mai Tai. As I mentioned before, they're both made with fresh, house-made ingredients. The bacon on the bloody mary, smoked in-house, is to die for. This is a great accompaniment to South End's bustling Sunday brunch, and Nye says they have to make many gallons of the "liquid salsa" mix to keep up with the demand.

We ended on a tropical note with the Mai Tai; it's visually pleasing and absolutely delicious. Thanks to the use of fresh pineapple juice as opposed to canned, it's vibrantly pineapple-y and refreshing. Careful, it's strong! Rum mixed in, and a dark rum float.

Good thing there was delicious food to soak up the alcohol: fish tacos and meatballs. From start to finish, at brunch (try the whole wheat oatmeal pancakes with lemon curd and blueberries), lunch or dinner, South End is memorable. Take the trip to New Canaan, order a cocktail, settle in, and prepare to be impressed.
South End is located at 36 Pine Street, New Canaan, CT 06840. Call 203-966-5200 for reservations.
Cocktail photos courtesy South End

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sake, Sushi, and Shandies: A Visit to Miya's Sushi in New Haven

I took a trip to New Haven this week to check out Miya's Sushi. The chef, Bun Lai, was recently featured in Outdoor Magazine for his innovative use of generally overlooked plants and animals, which is too intriguing not to make the drive. 
After being seated, we were each treated to a flight of 5 different house-infused sakes: spicy honey sake, pickled ginger sake, a sweet/berry sake, a pinecone sake, and a bright green pine needle sake. Our two clear favorites were the ginger and the pine needle, and our enthusiastic server brought us a drink he had invented: half beer, half ginger sake over ice. It was like a tangy twist on a shandy, and quite refreshing! 
Our server, a young man named Brendan, was an absolute pleasure. He was patient with our questions even though he was clearly busy, and I thought it was great that he offered a drink he had come up with himself. 
Then the food started to arrive. First, pumpkin miso soup with slow roasted pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and acorn squash. It offered an interesting combination of sweet and savory flavors, but the use of winter vegetables made it more suitable for a crisp fall evening.

Next, a salad of bitter greens tossed with Miya's own wild ramp and basil dressing. The greens were reminiscent of dandelion greens, and the slightly nutty dressing was a good counterpart to the bitterness of the fresh greens. 

The sushi, dish after dish, 8 in total, arrived. Clockwise from top right: scallops, crispy fava bean tempura seasoned with home grown chilis, Iranian ghormeh sabze, and avocado; a grape leaf wrapped roll of eggplant, avocado, pickled radish, scallions, and hot pepper drizzled with olive oil; a coconut covered roll of Alaskan shrimp, cantaloupe, burdock root, and cream cheese; Fava bean tempura broccoli, roasted garlic, and black beans.

 We were both struck by how similar all the rolls tasted despite such extensive ingredients. 

Clockwise from top right: eggplant, okra, goat cheese, apricots, avocado, pickled radish, chives, and Ethiopian berbere spice mix; figs, dates, raisins, goat cheese, roasted barley, pomegranate, cinnamon, spicy red pepper, honey, pistachio, extra virgin olive oil, manna/broccoli (The menu explained, "this roll utilizes the Seven Species of the Hebrew Bible and broccoli, beloved by Jews everywhere."); cauliflower and scallions wrapped in potato, topped with toasted jersey cow’s milk cheese and lemon dill aioli sauce, a California roll made with real Maryland blue crab meat and sliced avocado, drizzled with curry sauce. 
The California roll was the favorite by far, and the curry sauce was a nice twist on such a standard roll. 
Next, a beautifully presented nice spice tilapia sashimi seasoned with a spicy citrus soy sauce and green onions. It was just spicy enough to still allow the delicate fish to shine through. 
Lastly, a trio of offerings: scallop, mackerel, and a spicy white fish (sorry to say I cannot recall what it was). The scallop was much "slimier" than what I have experienced in the past, but tasted very light and fresh. 

The meal ended with a dessert roll: fermented, sundried banana, cashew butter, strawberries, chocolate, and homemade, hand-pounded mochi, topped with baby scoops of rose petal ice cream. I can only describe it as a journey of flavors; the cold, sweet ice cream is the first thing you can taste, then it melts and blends with the chocolate, and as you keep chewing you finish with banana flavor. I have not experienced anything like it.
As we departed, happily full of unique sake (thank you, Miya's, for the treat), we couldn't help but comment on the lack of "invasive species," something the chef is known for utilizing, and the reason we had wanted to check Miya's out.  There is a menu dedicated to invasives, so we may have to return and try it out. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Review: Stella Restaurant & Bar in Bethel, CT

Last night, after spending the afternoon lying in a sunlit field drinking fabulous locally brewed beer (Sea Hag by New England Brewing Company - check them out if you aren't familiar), it was time for food. But where to go? No desire to drive far, but we were in the mood for somewhere new.

After a mental checklist of places in the surrounding area, eureka! Stella! We had both been in the past, and weren't particularly impressed, but they've changed hands and are now chef owned. Off we went, and after the experience, I recommend making a trip over there. 

I generally prefer to try several different smaller plates rather than large entrees, and I always make an effort to order some "standard" items like calamari for the purpose of comparison to other places as well as at least one more "unique" dish. With this in mind, we ordered 4 appetizers: mussels, meatball trio, scallops, and calamari. 

The calamari arrived first, and it was delicious. Tender, crispy, and not too greasy, with a smattering of hot peppers and a tangy lemon aioli drizzled on top. Very good, and an attractive presentation. 

Next, the clear favorite: scallops. This was our "inventive" pick, as the scallops were served with pineapple chunks, edamame, and bacon. The surprising combo worked perfectly; tangy sweet pineapple, salty smoky bacon, and mild edamame to balance it all out. I really judge a restaurant by their scallops, because I know how difficult it is to get a nice sear on them without overcooking, and the chef clearly knows what he's doing. They were cooked perfectly. 

At this point, we were really pleased with the food and glad to discover a new spot. The next dish to arrive looked great but was a bit lackluster, the standard mussels in a white wine broth. It wasn't bad, but it was not memorable. An impressive amount of garlic though! 

Whoa garlic!

Lastly, the meatballs. The sauce was bright and "tomato-y" with no greasiness, which was nice. The meatballs were solid, and the presentation was interesting. They'd make great sliders.

Overall, a good experience and I'd like to try more of what they have to offer. Coming on the heels of a night at another Bethel spot, Ecco (rooftop at La Zingara), it was easy to make some mental comparisons between the two. Ecco is a great spot, and Stella absolutely holds its own. Ecco definitely has some competition down the street!

Price: 4 appetizers and 2 beers each: $65 plus tip. A little pricey for Bethel, but certainly less than Ecco, where a similar spread came to $85 plus tip.
Location: 213 Greenwood Avenue, Bethel, CT 06801

Friday, April 4, 2014

Recipe: Thai Pork Lettuce Wraps

I love lettuce wraps. They offer the perfect combination of warm filling and cool crispy lettuce, and salty sweet tanginess. The combination of textures is really satisfying. However, they're something I usually only enjoy in restaurants; they seem too complicated to make at home. I had a craving for them, and a beautiful head of butter lettuce in the fridge, so I decided to conquer my fears and make them myself! Guess what? They taste just like what you get in a restaurant, and I used way less oil than a restaurant would. Success! 
Admittedly, there are a lot of ingredients and steps, but none of if it actually difficult. The key is tasting as you go and adjusting based on your personal preferences. More sesame oil? More soy sauce? More sweet mirin? Whatever you want - it's forgivable. 

When I read a few different recipes as a jumping off point, they were full of ingredients I didn't have, like fish sauce and lemongrass. From cooking asian dishes in the past, I knew these things weren't really necessary to create complex flavors. So here's what I put together:


  • 1 lb. ground pork, 80% lean
  • 1 head butter lettuce
  • 1 medium white onion, diced 
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup water chestnuts, diced
  • 1 medium carrot, diced very fine (I peeled the whole thing and then diced)
  • 1 tbsp. white rice
  • 1 tbsp. sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tbsp. minced ginger root (always use fresh, not dried and powdered!)
  • 4 tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup mirin (sweetened sake - you can find it in the asian section of most supermarkets)
  • 1/2 tsp. ground white pepper (this is important - it adds a different flavor from black pepper)
  • Sprinkle red pepper flakes to taste
  • Sprinkle toasted sesame seeds
  • Spritz fresh lime juice

  1. Separate the leaves of butter lettuce, being careful not to tear them. Wash, dry, and set aside.
  2. In a large, dry sauté pan, toast the rice over medium heat for about 5 minutes. You'll know it's done when the grains just begin to turn golden. 
  3. In a food processor or with mortar and pestle, grind the toasted rice until it's powder. This is the worst part of the whole process! It takes forever, but it's an important ingredient. If you have a child, get them to do this part! It's fun for them, but annoying for you!
  4. In the same pan, cook the pork until crumbly and no longer pink. Drain and set aside.
  5. Add 1 tbsp. of olive oil to the same pan, and once it's shimmering, add the diced onion, carrot, water chestnuts, ginger, and garlic. Sauté for a few minutes, and when the start to brown, add the mirin. Cover and turn the heat down to low. You want everything to get a bit soft; let it sit for 6 minutes or so.  
  6. Add the drained pork to the pan of veggies, stir to combine. Add soy sauce, sesame seeds, white pepper, and red pepper flakes.
  7. Serve with lettuce leaves for wrapping, and spritz with fresh lime juice. 

Not pictured: sesame oil, white pepper, lime

Yup, this part takes forever and makes your arm hurt. It's good exercise. :-)