Restaurant Review: Arethusa al Tavolo, Bantam

Restaurant Review: Arethusa al Tavolo, Bantam

Julie Bidwell

★★★½ [Superior-Extraordinary]

With authentic rural roots and quirky unvarnished charm, Bantam has no lack of admirers, but unlike its tony Litchfield Hills neighbors, it has never been a star-studded gourmet-dining destination. That changed this summer when the top executives of Manolo Blahnik USA, the iconic shoe company, opened a stylish wine bar with fab food in an antique building on Bantam Road opposite a greenhouse and a gas station.

The back story is more bucolic. It started when president George Malkemus and vice president Anthony Yurgaitis, who had a house in Litchfield, bought a farm. After that, one thing led to another—in this instance 325 thoroughbred Jersey, Holstein and Swiss Brown cows, a high-end dairy and in 2012 a creamery and retail store, which was mobbed from day one. There were lines out the door for fresh milk and yogurt, creamy cheese, good butter and ice cream to die for.

The brand-conscious owners (no surprise) named the dairy, the store and its products “Arethusa,” as the original farm had been named—for an orchid that once grew there.

Also unsurprisingly, Arethusa’s entrepreneurial founders envisioned yet another farm-related enterprise: Arethusa al Tavolo Wine Bar & Restaurant. It opened on June 14 this year next to the dairy store in a matching red brick building with a charming outdoor dining patio in-between. Almost immediately it was booked solid, quickly becoming the go-to place for locals as well as peripatetic foodies. Because I don’t always agree with the crowd (or even with other restaurant critics), I had to see for myself.

Fast-forward: It’s 5:30 on a Thursday evening, the only time slot I was able to snag. Arethusa al Tavolo is already filled with a happy, youngish crowd, not hanging around the bar, but seated at tables for two, four or more, sipping wine and paying enthusiastic attention to plates of delicious-looking food. My companions are knowledgeable about food and wine and also know the Litchfield area. At the moment, they are perusing the wine list looking for a crisp rosé they had recently enjoyed at another restaurant in Litchfield. It’s not listed, but the waiter suggests something similar, a 2011 Château Roubine Côtes de Provence, which Paul likes enough to photograph the label. Arethusa’s creatively curated collection of 165 wines presents 35 at a time in continuous rotation, so there’s always a chance to try something new.

The menu changes frequently, too. Tonight, it begins with deviled eggs, which seem to be everywhere these days. With some of the best chefs in America focusing on this humble picnic staple, there’s a lot of competition out there, but Arethusa’s deviled eggs blow us away: four halves, each deviled a different way. One’s filled with mousse-like smoked trout, one with beef tartare, one with smoked salmon and one with (drum roll) foie gras. Each is more luscious than the last.

Miniature arancini, pale gold, crisp-crusted and creamy inside, arrive as an amuse-bouche. Served without sauce, they become finger food, fun to munch. A Little Gem lettuce salad sparkles with fennel, radishes, crisped speck, focaccia, black grapes and buttermilk dressing. Arethusa Farm eggs Manolo Blahnik Style raise “scrambled eggs”  to the epitome of luxury, with lobster, truffle custard, chives and osetra caviar.

We’re beginning to see what Arethusa’s chef, Dan Magill, is up to. With an in-house dairy source and farms all around, he’s using every farm-fresh fruit, root, leaf, stem, flower and pinch of fennel pollen he can find to create one-of-a-kind dishes, distinctly his own. Some things work better than others. A crêpe filled with beef negimaki calls for a peppy sauce, but the egg-yolk brunoise served with it is not assertive enough, and the horseradish aioli strikes a jarring note. The warm octopus salad is so tender and tasty, I almost wish it had not been gussied up with so many accoutrements—spinach, fingerling potatoes, picholine olives, chorizo, piquillo peppers and sherry vinaigrette. Fluffy home-baked cheese biscuits arrive cool, and the quince farmer’s cheese served instead of butter seems too sweet to introduce before dessert.

These are minor quibbles, some a matter of taste. Almost everything we try is perfectly cooked and represents an invitation to explore culinary terra nova. Mustard-glazed Chinook salmon boasts an especially felicitous choice of embellishments—warm sunchoke ragout, guanciale, haricots verts, cucumber red onion salad and dill yogurt emulsion. I like it so much I’d ask for the recipe, but I know I’ll never find time to round up so many ingredients, much less prep and cook them.

Butter-poached North Atlantic halibut is equally delicious with lump crab paella, asparagus and Cara Cara oranges, which are trendy right now, with good reason. They are sweeter with a more complex flavor than other navel oranges, and they’re seedless. Pairing them with halibut is not an altogether new idea, but it’s a good one.

A roasted rack of lamb, medium-rare, cut in thick, juicy chops, demonstrates chef Magill’s wisdom in letting the rich, full-bodied meat speak for itself. Served au jus, with just a potato croquette and a sweet corn cup-custard alongside, it’s simply perfect. Sometimes less is more.

But our favorite entrée is a gloriously complicated reinvention of Pekin Duck. Roasted breast meat cut in thicker slices than most glistens with tangerine orange duck jus. Farro with peach compote, baby vegetables and melted turnips contribute complementary accent notes of taste and texture. Sometimes more is wonderful.

Just to read the varied list of desserts (all made in-house with Arethusa Farm Dairy products) makes the mouth water. Honey yogurt panna cotta with berry consommé, spiced granola and a sable cookie. Valrhona amaretti tart with rhubarb compote and strawberry ice cream. Apple-ginger beignets with toffee sauce, almond biscotti and rum raisin ice cream. Sour-cream coffee cake is a little dry under its streusel topping but if you eat crumb cake mostly for the crumbs, you’ll love it—especially with coffee ice cream, espresso toffee and coffee brittle. Opulence reigns, as it should with desserts.

Yes, there’s a cheese plate with fresh fruit, toasted bread, fig preserves and a chunk of honeycomb. And a selection of Arethusa Farm Dairy ice cream. But you might want to skip these and visit the dairy store for cheese and ice cream to take home. Rich, creamy, all-natural, this is ice cream made the old-fashioned way. No mile-long list of ingredients—just cream, milk, eggs, sugar and natural flavorings. Have it in a waffle cone or hand-packed to go. I buy a pint of butter pecan. Yum.

Arethusa al Tavolo

828 Bantam Rd., Bantam, 860/567-0043,

Thursday through Sunday 5:30 to 9:30. Major credit cards. Wheelchair access. Price range: Appetizers $9 to $21, entrées $25 to $32, desserts $9.

(This article was originally published on a different platform. Some formatting changes may have occurred.)

This article appeared in the October 2013 issue of Connecticut Magazine

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