An American Road Trip – CT, MA and Long Island

January 1, 2009

A trip to Connecticut proves that one of the more puzzling mysteries of my increasingly distant childhood in Fairfield County remains unsolved. To wit, with a handful of exceptions, how is it possible that a constellation of some of the richest suburbs in the United States is still unable to generate a restaurant culture that’s on par with that of nearby New York City? Instead, the standard-issue offer in these gilded precincts runs to mediocre Italian places, third-string ethnic restaurants, and fly-in-amber steakhouses like Bennett’s in Stamford.

Until recently, Bennett’s was such an old-fashioned place that I actually sort of enjoyed the occasional meal here as a form of gastronomic time travel. It reminded me of the two Manero’s steakhouses in Westport and Greenwich where my maternal grandmother would take us for a birthday dinner of shrimp cocktail, steak, onion rings and cheesecake. Bennett’s had actually improved on this boilerplate, however, by offering Niman Ranch (organic) meat, a much-better-than-average wine list and a terrific standing-order good-buy on boiled lobsters. A recent meal, alas, revealed that an ownership change had ruined this anthropological relic of a place. Stuffed mushroom caps were a stodgy mess, clams on the half-shell were the size of my thumb nail, and all of the side orders (onion rings, hash-browns, creamed spinach and sauteed mushrooms) that came with our steaks had a decidedly industrial taste. Further, the Niman ranch meat had disappeared, service was terrible (our appetizers arrived before our wine, our main courses were tepid, and then there was an interminable wait before the table was cleared), and the food exhibited sorry signs of food-service-industry short-cuts. 

Dinner at Telluride the following night was considerably better–I loved my wild-rice and chorizo chowder and Block Island swordfish steak with a salad of shaved fennel, golden onions, tomatoes and raisins, but the prices were so heart-stopping that I couldn’t help but thinking about all of the terrific food I could eat in New York and, most of all, Paris, for half the price.

On to Boston via Amtrak, and a very good lunch at Scampo, Lydia Shire’s new neo-Italian place at the over-hyped Liberty Hotel (the lobby of the hotel was created from the old Charles Street jail). On a cold, wet afternoon, the ribollita (Tuscan vegetable soup) served here was excellent, and my curiosity about an improbably sounding lobster pizza was well-rewarded. Delicately seasoned with gently tangy white cheese, herbs and shallots, the pizza was perfectly baked–the lobster didn’t dry out or become rubbery, but the cheese melted, and the flavors of this dish were surprisingly distinct and delicious. Next, Berkshire pork milanese with a saffron risotto rice cake for me and chicken breast with white polenta, spinach and grilled eggplant for Bruno. If the taste of my pork scallops was overwhelmed by greasy breading and an excessively punch salsa, Bruno’s dish was impeccably prepared, and overall, I’d recommend this very good-looking restaurant as a terrific place for a casual lunch or dinner. 

Sunday lunch at Barbara Lynch’s B & G Oysters in the South End was fabulous. I love the soft Soul sound-track, smart waitresses, little prop card that comes when you order oysters so that you know which ones are which, and nice selection of wines by the glass. Little neck clams cooked Portuguese style with tomatoes, hot pepper and scallions were superb–generously served and perfectly cooked. I also love B & G’s lobster roll, since the lobster salad is lightly marinated in lemon juice instead of being slathered with mayonnaise, and it comes with bread-and-butter pickles, cole slaw, and delicious herbed fries. Just two quibbles–there was just a little too much hot pepper on the littlenecks and it’s a shame they don’t serve espresso (only “regular” American coffee), but I suppose that this latter omission is to keep the turnover brisk at what is, after all, an oyster bar.

Probably no single address I visited during this American trip better showed off how wonderfully good American food has become today, though, than the Village Cheese Shop in charming little Mattituck, New York on Long Island’s North Fork. Here we picked up a terrific assortment of American farm house cheeses–Womanchego from Connecticut, Hooligan (also from Connecticut), Lamb Chopper (a sheep’s milk cheese from Long Island) and a Peconic Blue to bring back to Paris for a dinner party on Sunday. This cheese, along with a couple of bottles of wine from local vineyards on the North Fork, will surely leave our Parisian friends dumbstruck.

Bennett’s, 24 Spring Street, Stamford, CT, Tel. 203-978-7995

Telluride, 245 Bedford Street, Stamford, CT, Tel. 203-357-7679

Scampo, Liberty Hotel, 215 Charles Street, Boston, MA, Tel. 617-224-4000

B & G Oysters, 550 Tremont Street, Boston, MA, Tel. 617-423-0550

The Village Cheese Shop, 105 Love Lane, Mattituck, NY, Tel. 631-298-8556