Chao Chi is a collaboration between Elaine Chao and Prasad Chirnomula, the man behind Thali restaurants. Together they have transformed a former Pan Asian restaurant, into something of a modern American destination for northern Fairfield County, an area better known for farms than fine dining.
The reinvention of this restaurant begins squarely with Prasad Chirnomula. If you know and love his Thali restaurants, the depth and breadth of Chao Chi’s inventive dishes, which are more like global compositions, begin to make sense. The restaurant also comes with a talented team – in the kitchen is Executive Chef Adam Roytman, a fearless young chef who has worked in the kitchens of Matt Storch (Match) and Bill Taibe (LeFarm). In the front of the house, manager and sommelier Steve Garret is a knowledgeable industry veteran whose staggering and constantly curated wine list matches the depth of the Chao Chi menu.
The restaurant inhabits an old mill building in the center of Sandy Hook, a skinny and tall brick building perched along side the Pootatuck River with a wrap around porch that takes advantage of the sounds and view of the river and a quaint town center. Inside the restaurant the decor has vestiges of the structure’s factory provenance, its recent Asian past and its modern American present and future. The lower level is divided in two, with a bar area at left and a dining area with a raw bar to the right. The upstairs dining area continues into a loft-like space with another bar and ample seating for more dining and private parties.
We began our meal at outside at dusk, with a few small plates that put any notion that the restaurant is anything but modern American to rest. We chose the marinated beet salad, a deconstructed salad composed with hefty chunks of red beets, frisee, ricotta salata, pistachios and a drizzle of white balsamic dressing. A prosciutto and fig bruschetta with ricotta, arugula and sweet balsamic was divine – a late summer/early fall comfort food. The standout was seared foie gras served atop toasted brioche with crushed walnuts and a jammy drizzle of blueberry syrup. Like Chirnomula’s Westport Thali, you could make a wonderful meal out of this menu’s small plates, and have fun pairing selections with the restaurant’s ample wine list and Garret’s recommendations.
However tempting it was to continue with small plates, we forged on and ordered entrees. The caramelized sea scallops sat atop a sweet corn, snap pea and peach hash; a local and delectable composition of late summer flavors and textures. The stand-out was the Alaskan Halibut with a chorizo crust, served with squash, roasted fingerling potatoes and finished with a romesco sauce. Halibut can be a rather ordinary fish, but give it some love in the form of a dapper suit of panko and chorizo, and it sings. The third entree was a Long Island Duck Breast served atop a creamy polenta, rainbow chard and a heaven-sent blackberry-foie gras emulsion. I found myself reaching back to my companions plate to scrape and taste the remnants of the emulsion, a sweet and savory concoction that paired elegantly with the flavors of the seared duck breast.
I don’t know what possessed us to order dessert after our breathless variety of dishes and flavors, but I’m glad we did. Chao Chi nailed a pineapple upside-down cake, a semolina-based cake paired with banana ice cream, caramelized bananas and a drizzle of coconut rum syrup. A decadent dessert triumph.
Chao Chi is the latest stop on the journey of Prasad Chirnomula, a restauranteur and chef of talent and vision. Known for challenging our notion of Indian food with his Thali restaurants, Chirnomula has now broken his own mold to create modern American destination dining in our own backyard.
Chao Chi 1 Glen Road, Newtown. 203.364.9393