I know what you’re thinking...why is CTBites reviewing The Dressing Room? Isn't it the most reviewed restaurant in Fairfield County? Haven't we heard it all before? Think again. The Dressing Room has long been the go-to spot for a glass of wine or pre-theater meal, but it seems that Chef/Owner Michel Nischan and Executive Chef John Holzwarth have recently made some changes to their "Homegrown" repertoire.
I re-visited The Dressing Room recently at a friend's suggestion to try their new “American Tapas” menu. Just back from vacation on Cape Cod, and feeling the after-effects of the every day, all-fried seafood diet (ok, fine... there was the daily ice cream cone too), I was in dire need of a healthy veggie fix. My friend assured me that with the newly invigorated menu, I would not be disappointed... and I was not. In fact, I was blown away.
Chef/owner Michael Nischan and his talented team crafted this new menu format last May, shrinking the portion size of their entrees and creating a new assortment of smaller, reasonably priced plates. They also ramped up the number of vegetable and salad options. The intention was to make dining at the Dressing Room more affordable. But in the process, they have elevated their farm-to-table concept to new, dizzying heights with innovative dishes that are more nuanced and flavorful than ever before. On prior visits, I found their menu underwhelming and often struggled with what to order, but now there are so many tempting options, I can’t decide what to eat first. Fortunately, the new tapas-style format of “Small and Light” and “Medium Bites” makes it ideal for sampling.
In the "Homegrown" tradition, all of the menu offerings feature local farms and producers. Chef Holzwarth tells us that during the growing season, close to 95% of the ingredients are locally sourced. This bounty can be best seen and savored in the trademark Newman Says “Use a Spoon” Chopped Salad (pictured right). I dream of re-creating this dish at home, if only my garden would cooperate. It’s different every time, depending on what’s available and in season (yes, I’ve been back... twice, actually, and I just keep thinking of all the money I'm saving with that new menu). August featured hearty chunks of ultra-fresh tomatoes, nectarines, parsley, radishes (who knew radishes could taste so good?), goat cheese and toasted pistachios, all tossed in a subtle, wonderfully light citrus dressing. The fall version has three varieties of organic apples, beets, carrots, Beltane Farms goat cheese and beans... nirvana for vegetable lovers. Seriously.
Other favorites at the table: New Bedford Scallops, seared over a bed of roasted beets and fava beans with a citrus beet emulsion and a smattering of mache. On a subsequent visit, I found these beautiful seared scallops prepared with Long Island cauliflower puree, anjou pear emulsion and local cider vinegar... equally delicious. These savory scallops are remarkably fresh, and in both versions are enhanced by the mild sweetness of the accompanying fruit.
The Preserved Tomato Soup was intensely flavorful on its own but when paired with the molten grilled cheese sandwich “garnish," it became my new obsession. This soup can be enjoyed year round due to the "preserving" or "canning" of local ripe tomatoes during the growing season. The Mixed Heirloom Grains are not far behind-- a medley of nutty farro piccolo, chewy black barley, foraged mushrooms and herbs, prepared risotto-style and swathed in a carrot emulsion (they have definitely perfected the art of the emulsion).
If you’re a meat lover, then the “Mini Burger” will not disappoint. It has been downsized perfectly, and is available as a single or double portion, depending on your appetite. It is incredibly juicy, and comes topped with house-cured bacon, caramelized onions, Amish cheddar and a slice of heirloom tomato (in season). The wood fire on which it is grilled certainly enhances the flavor of the meat, but this burger has one more trick up its sleeve. David Hughes, of Stone Broke Farm, hand delivers (I've witnessed the delivery!) a whole, local, pasture-fed steer every month for our eating pleasure, and let me tell you... the quality of the meat makes all the difference.
While we're talking about downsizing and beef, I should mention another recent addition to the menu-- the "Mini Meatloaf." This version features the same whipped potatoes, vegetable saute, and caramelized gravy found in the classic Dressing Room Meatloaf, and is equally hearty and delicious.
The only mild disappointment was the Kettle Macaroni and Cheese with cured pork belly, which while decent, lacked the intense cheesy flavor I was hoping for. If you are looking for a carb load, I would opt for the delicious Cast Iron Corn Bread, made with fresh corn and locally produced Andrew's honey. (If you've never tried Andrew's honey...get yourself to a farmer's market or Whole Foods pronto!)
Lastly, and I save this for last as it is truly spectacular, we sampled the Sunburst Trout (pictured right). "Farmed in North Carolina at the intersection of two rivers," Chef Holzwarth tells us, this trout is slightly pink in color and is remarkably fresh. Of course, freshness aside, the dish's intense flavor may have something to do with the caramelized shallots and apples, as well as the smoked trout caviar atop the two beautiful fillets. Underneath, is a foundation of spaghetti squash, and the contrast of the caramelized ingredients with the salty caviar is simply fabulous. And did I mention the crispy skin?
The dessert menu is equally tempting and echoes the seasonal comfort food theme of the main menu – s’mores, lemon meringue, and devil’s food cake, adorably served with a shot glass of milk. The signature dish is The Naughty Angel – crispy pan-fried almond angel food cake, served with vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of that delicious Andrew's honey. Sublime. We were dueling forks and shoving elbows to get the last bite.
So if it’s been a while since you’ve paid the Dressing Room a visit, give it another try. While you’ll find the same cozy farmhouse ambience (and killer French martinis), you’ll also find an abundance of superb, inventive dishes, all made with local ingredients, painstakingly sourced on the menu. And while I wouldn't exactly call it 'cheap eats', the refreshingly smaller portions and lower price points will allow you to sample more of the fine fare, without obliterating your wallet.
The Dressing Room is open for lunch Wednesday through Sunday, and dinner Tuesday through Sunday.
The Dressing Room 27 Powers Court, Westport. 203.226.1114