From Greenwich, Connecticut, to Portland, Maine, New England is blessed not only with an extraordinary bounty of food from the fields and woods and lakes and sea but also, since the 1980s, a generation of chefs who utilized that provender to create a food culture as rich as any in America. Chefs like Nitzi Rabin of Chillingsworth, Daniel Bruce at the Boston Harbor Hotel, Ana Sortun of Oleana, Jody Adams of Porto and Melissa Kelly associated with Primo were the pioneers, and, in so many ways, Brian Lewis is heir to their experience and expertise over the last decade, tying together several culinary strains into a loose fabric at his four restaurants, three within Connecticut, one in Rye, New York.
I first enjoyed Lewis’s cooking at the Bedford Post Inn, when it was opened by actors Richard Gere and his wife Carey Lowell, then at his own place, Elm, within New Canaan, where he was already showing the talent for Asian flavors and techniques he furthered at The Cottage in Westport. So entranced by Japanese cuisine was Lewis that he opened OKO, in both Westport and Rye, as a superlative rendering of sushi and other innovative delicacies that go far beyond the usual offerings.
A return visit this month to the Westport Cottage, followed by a first visit to the Greenwich Cottage, strongly indicated that will Lewis is at the top associated with his form in refining his methods and focus. I have rarely tasted so many dishes that seemed so well conceived and so thoroughly worked through so that every ingredient—as many as possible from local purveyors—complements the rest with a sure balance of richness, seasonings and textures.
Thus, everything in his Fort Hill Farm tomato salad of Romaine lettuce, a basil aïoli, pancetta bacon and brioche crouton ($18) was the best of the season. A simple starter associated with creamy house-made ricotta spread on sourdough toast with tiger figs, pistachios plus balsamico ($17) opened the palate on a lush note, followed by the wild fluke crudo enlivened by tangy Sicilian orange, anise-like fennel and Serrano chili ($19). A cream-colored velouté of local corn with peekytoe crab, jalapeño salsa and cool melon ($18) was a delicate but vibrant pleasure.
Regulars refuse to allow Lewis ever to remove a fried rice dish through his menu, at Westport tossed along with lobster, plum, sesame plus oozy quail eggs ($23), or the wagyu brisket Asian buns with Napa kimchi , duck fat potato tempura and ink aïoli ($12 each). Then there are always sumptuous, house-made pastas, like the signature hammer toe tortelloni laced with basil oil and a good dose of Parmigiano ($19/$29). Main courses, which include a very good burger with Comet cheese plus sriacha aïoli ($24), revel in Atlantic resources in dishes like firm Rhode Island black bass with fregola grain, almonds, caramelized fennel and mussels ($38), and New Jersey scallops with corn and sausage succotash, romesco and Maxibel pecans ($39).
All sections of the particular menu are of the same fabric, therefore desserts match the preceding dishes, such as Lindsay Shere’s almond cake with ripe peaches plus rich mascarpone ($13), and dark chocolate s’mores plus graham cracker crumb and toasted meringue ($13). For all these ingredients, these types of dishes all seem sensibly priced, plus you’ll undoubtedly share some.
The premises in Westport are usually cozy in their barn wood veneer, yet that means it can get very loud when there’s a full main dining room; ask in order to sit in the bar.
Twenty minutes away at the new Greenwich Holiday cottage, I expected to find more or less the same menus as in Westport, yet Lewis wants their new baby to walk on her own, so the menu there begins along with spicy squid and fatted pork belly with kumquat citrus-chili kosho, cashews plus squid caramel ( $19), and a wonderful miso black cod with shiitake marmalade, “ember” aïoli and buckwheat crêpe ($23). The fried rice dish is made with sweet ($21. ) The pastas include a very rich foie gras stuffed into cappellacci flag rock with Sherry-laced prunes and toasted walnuts ($24/$34) plus corsetti impressed with a stamp figure and served along with sweet Gorgonzola and a hazelnut prosciutto crumble ($18/$28).
Among the main dishes is Maine halibut baked in spruce with cauliflower and kale and pickled grapes plus burnt onion ($42). Casco Bay cod is perfumed with garlic oil and served with cocoa beans, sweet buttery leeks along with a confit associated with egg yolk and chorizo sabayon ($39). Wagyu beef short ribs in Barolo is a bit too much of a good thing, amplified with dried cherry plus walnut Shropshire crumbs on mascarpone grits ($55); in this, less would have been more than enough. I had my first venison saddle of the season, roasted with juniper and thyme, as well as brown butter parsnips, chanterelles and huckleberries ($48), the epitome of autumn.
And for dessert it was good old fashioned carrot wedding cake ennobled along with buttermilk sorbet and coffee walnut fall apart ($13) as well as “drunken affogato” of vanilla gelato having a pour of black apple rum plus espresso ($11).
The dining area in Greenwich, quite sunny during the day, has a pleasant lighting during the evening and the cheery colors from the sea. Depending on who’s sitting next to you —pray it is not table associated with investment bankers celebrating the purchase of a hotel chain (not typical among Greenwich loudmouths)—the noise level varies.
Both Cottage restaurants have good, solid wine lists using a sufficient number by the glass, most around $16.
I am always anxious when a chef—and high praise should go to Lewis’s sous-chefs and cooks with regard to consistency—branches out too widely and quickly, so often losing control. But Lewis is now showing a true mastery of the form a single might call New England tradition with sensible Pacific notes that make his cuisine all the more impressive.
Is he the best chef in Brand new England? When I get around to all of them, I’ll let you know. Yet right now, Brian Lewis will be garnering gold.