Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Westport's Little Barn: Where You Just Can't go Wrong

There is no greater pleasure when writing a review than the ability to wholeheartedly and genuinely report a completely positive experience. After attending a blogger dinner at Little Barn in Westport, I now have the opportunity to do exactly that. 

From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the restaurant is cozy but not suffocating, features two fireplaces (one indoor and one outdoor), a lovely patio, and a rustic bar with an entire wall of sliding windowed doors for breezy summer dining. We began the evening outside by the fireplace and were greeted by Scott Beck, personable and witty co-owner of Little Barn, and gracious General Manager Dave Studwell.

Giant soft pretzels with spicy stout and honey mustard dipping sauces from Little Barn's Oktoberfest menu and a pint of Pumpkin Porter from Thimble Island (a Branford, CT based brewery) got us started, and while the pretzel was warm and delicious, I knew better than to eat too much and start the evening already full.

Inside we went, and dish after dish began to arrive. First, a series of appetizers served family style. Seared sesame encrusted Ahi Tuna over avocado puree and topped with pineapple pico de gallo were just right; very lightly seared and completely raw in the center with crunchy sesame seeds and a kick of sriracha served on the side. 

Two different trays of tacos, char grilled filet tips with roasted pineapple, guacamole, and pico de gallo, as well as grilled chicken with pico de gallo and chipotle mayo arrived at the table. Wow. These are great tacos. The lightly charred tortillas and smoky spice of chipotle peppers made for an addictive flavor combination. There's a certain taco place in Westport (rhymes with martaco), and I've always been a fan, but now I've discovered a new favorite. 

Usually salads are the least "fun" part of a meal (at least not for my pizza-addicted palate). Not so at Little Barn. A shaved brussels sprouts salad tossed with crispy pumpkin seeds, crunchy granny smith apples, and chewy dried cranberries, dressed in a mustard vinaigrette and sprinkled with parmesan cheese, was the best use of raw brussels sprouts I have yet to experience. I was also pleased to see the correct spelling, "brussels" on the menu - almost every other restaurant, take note. 

The raw kale and shaved fennel salad with candied pecans and red wine vinaigrette earns the same "best I've encountered" status. I had three helpings. I want to eat more right now. It's a must order dish, even if you have disliked kale in the past.

Thai chicken lettuce wraps with hot chili sauce and peanuts were flavorful but not overpowering, and a great dish for sharing with the table. 

For my entree, I chose sesame and wasabi crusted tuna with warm soba noodles. Even though we had already tried the tuna appetizer, I was ready for more. The entree was even better, with larger, thinner cuts of Ahi tuna and noodles with just the right combination of peanut flavor and salty sweetness. For vegetarians, a bowl of these noodles would be totally satisfying. 

After such a great meal, I was not sure there was room for dessert, but of course I could not resist. A warm brownie with caramel sauce, whipped cream, and gelato was indulgently chocolatety, and the pumpkin pie was well received.
But the absolute star of the trio, and perhaps of nearly every dessert I've ever had, was fried chocolate chip cookie dough bites with vanilla gelato. My taste buds did not know how to handle the deliciousness of these bite sized delights.

Stop reading this review, and go straight to Little Barn to try them. They combine the classic carnival treat of fried dough, texture combination of fried ice cream, and the indulgence of eating cookie dough straight from the mixing bowl.

It is surely obvious that I highly recommend a trip to Little Barn. It's suitable for both family dining, watching sports in the bar, or date night by the fireplace. And the food...well, my compliments to Chef Jeff Spence. 

Little Barn is located a1050 Post Road (near Barnes & Noble), Westport CT, 06880
Phone: 203-557-8501
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All photos by Jason Varga

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Fall Wine Dinner at Picador in New Canaan: an Intimate Evening of Fine Fare and Libations

Picador in New Canaan already has a solid standing on my list of favorite restaurants, and after their Wine Dinner earlier this week, my enthusiasm has only increased. The evening ran so smoothly, and I learned much more about wine than I have at any wine tasting. The Head Chef, Frank Barrese, outdid himself with the evening's menu, and it was a pleasure to overhear the comments of other guests; I was clearly not the only one who had a fabulous time.

Upon arrival, guests were welcomed by Picador's owner, Ray Rivera, directed to a lovely spread of cheeseboards, and handed a glass of Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs. Jana Waite, a representative from Eder Brothers, shared details and tasting notes about each wine throughout the evening, and explained that Schramsberg is served at the White House to international guests. The room buzzed with anticipation and guests mingled happily. As the restaurant filled, we drifted to our seats, and soon the main event was underway.


A delicious glass of Stags Leap Chardonnay set the stage for the first course of the evening, seared diver scallops with butternut squash and borsin au gratin. I was excited to try these from the moment I first saw the menu, as I had experienced some of Chef Barrese's other scallop dishes, and this interpretation lived up to my high expectations. The scallops were tender, delicately sweet, and quickly gone from my plate.


While we ate, Jana explained that the Chardonnay we were drinking was a great choice for this kind of meal, as it goes well with both seafood and meats, as it is crisp and not too sweet. The flavors of the wine, she continued, open up as the wine warms to room temperature, and she was absolutely right. I am a Chardonnay drinker, and this was excellent. 


The second course, braised oxtail stew, arrived next. I was impressed by the timing of the courses; often at these kinds of dinners, everything arrives too rapidly, and you feel both rushed and stuffed right away. The leisurely pace of Picador's dinner made for a markedly more pleasurable experience. 

Callejo Crianza accompanied the stew, and when Jana stopped by our table, we asked several questions about what it means when wine has "legs" and why you tip the wine to the side of the glass to see the color of the liquid's edge. Jana is a great teacher and is amazingly knowledgeable; she explained that the longer a wine is aged, and the warmer the climate, the more it evaporates and becomes thick, which is why it both clings to the inside of the glass and doesn't have a clear edge when tipped in the glass.


My taste buds, already thrilled, found themselves in heaven upon tasting the third course, a dry brined bone in rib eye with foie gras twice baked potato and rosemary demi glace. This was the best steak I have ever had. It was tender, juicy, and incredibly flavorful. I completely ignored the rest of my group and gave all my attention to this dish, all social graces forgotten. The twice baked potato was equally enticing, and I finished it and then stole some of my date's, too. Paired with a glass of Silverado Cabernet, the flavors came together for a seriously memorable main course.


The man behind the magic, Head Chef Frank Barrese, emerged shyly from the kitchen at the urging of Ray, and accepted his well deserved applause from the room. Everyone was impressed. Barrese is a gifted chef, and I have yet to be anything less than wowed by his creations.


Spanish sherry and a goat cheese custard topped with strawberries and hazelnuts finished off the meal, and Jana shared some final words about the great wines we had experienced, all of which are available at Stewart's Wines in New Canaan. Ray, always a gracious host, continued to mingle with guests, and the beaming smiles on everyone's faces served as further proof that the evening had been a great success. 

If you missed this dinner, never fear - there is a beer dinner in the works! Sign up for Picador's newsletter to be alerted when more details are available. 

Picador is located at 15 Elm Street, New Canaan, CT
Call 203 972 9999 for reservations, or find them on opentable
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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Bistro 7 in Wilton: New Menu, New Chefs, New Leaf

Since discovering Bistro 7 in Wilton, CT last year, it has been a favorite spot, and I have recommended it to anyone who cared to listen. A great Happy Hour (the best in town as far as quality and price), a friendly vibe, and a charming and caring owner, Breno Donatti (as well as his equally enjoyable wife, opera singer Jeanette Vecchione-Donatti), brought me back again and again. My friends and I were at the bar at least three nights per week.

After many months of nothing but positive experiences, our enthusiasm started to wane in the spring as Happy Hour changed and some of our favorite menu items vanished, and others became a bit inconsistent. Still, we went on occasion, and our loyalty to Breno and his vision for a true "farm to fork" experience never wavered.

I was thrilled when Breno told me that the restaurant was undergoing some significant changes. A new menu, new Sous Chef Harrison Schaefer, and a new Head Chef, Marcelino Martinez. Martinez was previously the Pastry Chef, and I had experienced his culinary talent firsthand. Plus, they were bringing back the Happy Hour I so missed, and strengthening their commitment to working with local farms through partnerships with Debra Sloane of Sloane Farm and Donna Simmons of Pound Ridge OrganicsThe Bistro 7 I had first fallen in love with was returning!

After closing for a few days in preparation for the grand reopening, patrons were invited to experience a selection of new menu items. Of course, I was there and excited to give it all a try. 

Knowing that Bistro 7 had reigned supreme in the "best bisque" category at last year's "Chowdafest" with their butternut squash bisque, I chose the roasted root vegetable bisque to start. It was rich and thick, a great choice for a cold winter night. I think their butternut squash takes the cake, but this bisque was still solid.

Next, beef empanadas drizzled in Bistro 7's cilantro lime sauce that I am so addicted to (really, it's fabulous. Order a side of this magical sauce and dip french fries into it). They were crisp, not too heavy, flavorful, and delicious! They went perfectly with the cold beer I was sipping; I guarantee I will be ordering these at Happy Hour soon!

For entrees, I chose the pan-seared salmon with bok choy, my companion chose pork roulade with zucchini and squash "linguine," and we split the two. The salmon was the best I've ever had. It was cooked perfectly, delicately flaky with a moist center. Salmon is all too easy to overcook, and I was extremely impressed with this dish. Really the standout of the meal.

The pork, another easily overcooked meat, was unfortunately just that. The flavor of the stuffing was great but the pork was dry. I would be willing to try again, as I know this would be a great dish if it had just been taken away from the heat a few minutes earlier. The vegetable "linguini" was delicious and amazingly flavorful.

I wholeheartedly recommend a trip to Bistro 7 - I've been a fan for a while now, and it's clear to me that things are only looking up for what was already a charming spot. Look for me at Happy Hour! :-)

Bistro 7 is located at 991 Danbury Rd, Wilton CT 06897
203-587-1287 |

Monday, October 13, 2014

Gastro Bar: Tapas with a Twist in Stamford, CT

I recently had the pleasure of dining at Gastro Bar in Stamford, CT, and it proved to be a great new addition to Stamford's ever-expanding restaurant scene. The large interior maintains an intimate feeling for date night, and long raised tables would be perfect for a larger group. Gastro Bar also offers Happy Hour, which is always appreciated.

We began our evening with a few appetizers at the large, inviting bar. First, crispy oysters with avocado puree, grapefruit, and radish that were not only pretty to look at but a pleasing combination of hot crunch oysters and cool, smooth avocado. Next, fried calamari with smoked aioli was nice and tender, with plenty of tentacles, my favorite! A margherita pizza with heirloom tomato, buffalo mozzarella, and basil left us happily full before dinner had even begun, but upon seeing the tempting menu I knew room would have to be made.

If I see salmon tartare on a menu, I will always order it. I've had quite the range of experiences from heavenly to terrifying, but luckily Gastro Bar did it right with just a hint of jalapenos, shallots, crispy potato, and cilantro Their tartare is fresh, light, and the flavor of the salmon shines through - there's nothing worse than a heavy, strong dressing that obscures the salmon itself - what a waste!

Another favorite food, brussels sprouts, arrived next in the form of a shaved salad dressed with truffle oil and lemon juice and served atop a crispy risotto cake. If you are a brussels fan, this is the salad for you! If not, this will not be the dish to convert you, as it really lets the brussels sprouts be the star of the dish and does not drown them in dressing. 

My favorite dish of the night was the eggplant parmesan with prosciutto, mascarpone, and ricotta cheese. This dish was so flavorful and satisfying! I am not a fan of eggplant, and I do not particularly like cheesy dishes, but I absolutely devoured this!

Another favorite of the night was Cavatelli with short rib ragu, black truffle, and cream. The sauce was not too heavy, though it was very richly meaty. I thought, based on the menu, that it would be a cream sauce, but I was happy to see that it was really just a touch of cream to help bind the sauce to the pasta. 

Albondigas (lamb meatballs) with baby kale and tomato sauce were underwhelming, especially compared to the inventiveness and careful preparation of the other dishes. 

Our meal ended with paella, and while I was already too full to move, I couldn't resist a generous helping of clams, shrimp, mussels, chicken, calamari, peas, chorizo, and saffron rice. Gastro Bar does a solid job with their paella, but the shrimp and chicken were overcooked. I did appreciate the generous dose of saffron. This dish was fragrant and hearty, and well received by the whole group. 

Gastro Bar is conveniently located in downtown Stamford, and absolutely worth a visit, whether for cocktails and tapas at happy hour or a full dinner. 

78 West Park Place, Stamford, CT ‎06901
Phone: 203-817-0392
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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The 4th Annual Greenwich Wine + Food Festival: Culinary Adventures for a Cause

An exciting combination of celebrity chefs, top mixologists, and incredible food from the region's best restaurants drew a crowd of over 4,700 people to the 4th Annual Greenwich Wine + Food Festival last weekend. All proceeds from the weekend's event, presented by Serendipity, support Paul Newman’s The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, an organization that offers “a different kind of healing” to children and their families coping with serious illnesses like cancer or sickle cell anemia.

Last year's festival was a truly incredible experience, by far my favorite "foodie" event of the year, and I had been looking forward to this year's almost from the moment last year's ended. This year did not disappoint. The Culinary Village, a tented smorgasbord of over 150 opportunities to taste the offerings of top restaurants in the area, was packed with an enthusiastic crowd of appreciative eaters, wine glasses in hand (there are plenty of wine, liquor, and beer representatives mixed in with the restaurateurs). Saturday was a day of indulgence and excitement, and the positive energy was palpable.

Clockwise from top left: Octopus from The Spread, short rib from Ritz Carlton, Filet Mignon, Pork belly from Mezon - Tapas Bar & Restaurant, Shrimp w/ ricotta gnocchi and pesto from Hudson Grille CT, Fluke crudo from Fjord Fisheries
It would be difficult to imagine a more perfect day, as visitors lounged by the water in Roger Sherman Baldwin park and basked in the unseasonably warm and sunny day.

CTBites hosted their blogger tent again the year, with an impressive lineup of celebrity chef and mixologists sharing their stories with moderator Matt Storch, owner and chef at Match in South Norwalk. Featured speakers included Adam Richman of Man vs. Food, Chopped's Aaron Sanchez (who has recently opened a new restaurant, Paloma, in Stamford), and Bill Taibe, the man behind Westport hotspots Le Farm and The Whelk.

A mixology competition featuring talent from local hotspots Walrus + Carpenter, Napa & Co., Valencia Luncheria, Paloma, and Match was a stiff one, with Adam Patrick of Match in South Norwalk earning the win with his creation "Farewell, My Lovely" (I've tried it, and I have to agree that it's remarkably delicious).

At 4 o'clock, two large tents (dubbed "The Watering Hole" full of beer and liquor vendor began to fill up, and the anticipation grew for the beginning of the BBQ and Burger Battle. At this point, I was too full to reasonably consume another morsel, but of course that did not stop me. There was a competition underway, and I had to form my own opinion! My favorite burger was from Dan Rooney's,  guinness sauced and placed on a pretzel bun, but last year's winner, Plan B Burger Bar, reigned supreme.

As darkness fell, the focus shifted from food to music, with performances by The Bacon Brothers and Alabama. It's an impressive feat to make it through the whole day and stay for the entirety of the music, one that I'll admit I have yet to achieve. Maybe next year. I'm already excited. If you live anywhere near Greenwich and have taste buds, The Greenwich Wine + Food fest is a must-attend event!