[UPDATE: This restaurant has closed] “Sustainability,” “Farm to Table,” “Locavore.” These all describe a culinary trend toward using locally raised ingredients. This philosophy has created a groundswell of top-tier restaurants in Fairfield County including Napa &Co., LeFarm, Harvest Supper, The Schoolhouse at Cannondale, Nicholas Roberts, and The Boathouse. But Brendan Walsh, owner-chef of Brendan’s at the Elms in Ridgefield, has been creating some of the best locally sourced “farm to table” food in Fairfield County for over ten years.
Walsh, a Bronx and Ridgefield native, conquered the NYC food establishment and returned to his Ridgefield roots in 1996. After he graduated at the top of his class from the Culinary Institute of America he was the opening chef at both The Water’s Edge and the Gotham Bar and Grill in New York City. He subsequently took a sabbatical from these gloried establishments to travel and increase his understanding of the cuisines of France, Italy, and California. In 1985 Walsh returned to Manhattan and made his culinary mark as the opening chef of Arizona 206. Two years later he was honored among Food & Wine’s Top Ten Chefs of 1987 and inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America. After several notable assignments overseeing kitchens in NYC and Long Island he returned to Ridgefield (his hometown since the age of 14) and opened the Elms Restaurant and Tavern and created his “Yankee Cuisine” in a location that dates to the 1760’s. In 2010, he renamed the restaurant Brendan’s at the Elms and continued to create delectable meals in his modern day interpretation of traditional colonial era dishes.
The current menu is divided into several categories; small dishes that include mussels, escargot and soups, several salads, both open and closed faced sandwiches, a full array of hamburgers and large plated entrees. Brendan once claimed that he prepared the best hamburger in Fairfield County so I decided to accept this challenge. I ordered the Ultimate Onion Burger with caramelized onions, gruyere cheese, roasted garlic aioli all served on a brioche roll. Accompanying the burger were French fries and housemade ketchup. We also ordered the Chicken Paillard Salad, described as a wood grilled chicken cutlet, grana cheese, roasted peppers, black olives, garden salad with balsamic vinaigrette. As a starter course we decided to share the special salad of prosciutto, mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes.
The tomato, prosciutto and mozzarella salad was wonderful. The prosciutto was flavorful, lean and added the correct amount of saltiness to complement the incredible sweetness of the tomatoes and the mild, yet rich consistency of the mozzarella. There were three varieties of tomatoes; my favorite was the orange. I later discovered that the tomatoes were from Chef Brendan’s personal garden while Riverbank Farms in Roxbury, CT grew the other ingredients.
Walsh’s “best burger” challenge was very close to a bull’s eye. As always I ordered it prepared medium-rare and it was cooked to perfection, a beautiful pink interior surrounded by a crisp exterior. The flavor was fantastic, a very deep, rich beef flavor, reminiscent of my eating hamburgers forty years ago. The meat was very lean which allowed the deep flavors of the meat to shine. The onions were slowly caramelized instead of a quick grilled variation and were soft, creamy and allowed the sugars in the onion to come to the surface and brown. The garlic aioli and the gruyere added two distinct yet balanced elements and created another level of earthy flavors. The bun was fantastic, added a buttery element and held together throughout, and I would classify this bun as the best in Fairfield County. I added some of Walsh’s housemade ketchup to the burger and it created one of the best burgers I have tasted. I definitely include this burger as one of my top-5 in Fairfield County. The French fries were the shoestring variety and were crispy on the outside, moist on the inside and dipping in the housemade ketchup created a perfect accompaniment to the burger and the fries rank second to none. True to the Locavore philosophy, the meat was sourced from a small local farmer.
The chicken paillard was also excellent. Two grilled pieces of chicken breast sat atop a mound of more Riverbank Farms greens. This salad included some of the sweetest lettuces that I have tasted and the tomatoes were same flavorful and luscious varieties that we enjoyed in the earlier salad.
On a subsequent visit we decided to sample the Roasted Beet Salad with Rainbeau Ridge goat cheese and red wine vinaigrette since beet season was ending and beets were one of my newly found food interest. Two varieties of beets surrounded the Riverbank Farms greens alongside chunks of goat cheese, all topped with a mild dressing. The beets were sweet and delicious, the goat cheese complemented the beet’s earthiness with a nice creaminess, the crisp and sweet salad greens added a crunchy texture with the tartness added in the dressing. It was a great beginning and a wonderful balance of flavors and textures.
On this visit we also ordered the Stonington Sea Scallop Gratin with asparagus & roasted new potatoes, Roasted Organic Chicken Breast with apple leek sausage, mashed & shallot cider au jus and another Ultimate Onion Burger. The burger was again cooked to absolute perfection and the meat was as I remembered from the first visit. The French-cut chicken was perfectly cooked, moist and tender on the interior and crispy on the exterior. It had loads of flavors. The apple leek sausage was very mild and lean and the mashed potatoes were smooth and creamy. I enjoyed all the flavors of this dish as well. The scallops were smallish for “Sea” variety and were perfectly cooked, were wonderfully sweet, and were enveloped in a soothing, creamy sauce. Atop the scallops were the traditional breadcrumbs that added the crunchy texture.
In all of our visits, the service, the atmosphere and most importantly the food were all top notch. Brendan’s at the Elms creates an informal and comfortable surrounding within the pub and a more formal experience in the surrounding rooms. In the summer months, the side porch offers an al fresco alternative with live entertainment on weekend evenings.
Chef Brendan Walsh is creating delicious new American cuisine in a beautiful relaxed setting. Brendan’s at the Elms will continue to be a Ridgefield gem for many years to come.
Brendan's At The Elms 500 Main Street, Ridgefield 203.438.9206