Amy Kundrat on Stepney Kitchen
Chef Jason Hall spends each Tuesday driving from farm to farm in and around Northern Fairfield County looking for the bounty that will fill his menu at Stepney Kitchen. Located strategically at the intersection of Rt. 59 and Rt. 25 in Monroe, CT, Stepney Kitchen is in the epicenter of what may be some of Fairfield County's most bucolic and farm-dense townships. The neighboring towns of Easton, Newtown, Oxford and Shelton enjoy a deep agricultural heritage that is being honored today by dedicated farmers and chefs such as Jason Hall at Stepney Kitchen.
On a recent evening, the kitchen was bursting with rhubarb as it enjoys its seasonal peak, arugula, ripe and delicious strawberries and piles of garlic scapes. In fact, after my meal Chef Hall sent me packing with my very own bag of garlic scapes. "Right now we are getting lots of beautiful late spring items like sugar snap peas, really nice lettuces, baby vegetables like turnips, squash blossoms and we are running through the end of a very prolific strawberry season- the strawberry gazpacho w/ fennel and grilled shrimp has been a staple item for the last couple of weeks," said Chef Hall.
At Stepney Kitchen, Chef Hall, accompanied by sous chef Tom McGill a Monroe native, counts many local farms among his regular purveyors for his produce and meat including Shortts, an organic farm in Sandy Hook section of Newtown; Jones Family Farm and Stone Gardens Farm in Shelton; Sport Hill Farm in Easton; and Farming 101, an heirloom tomato farm in Newtown; to name just a few.
When your ingredients are literally at the mercy of the weather and a farmer, you'll find the Stepney Kitchen menu to be more of a list of recommendations than seasonal commandments. Dishes aren't named as much as they are a list of ingredients. "I don't generally name dishes I prefer just to list the ingredients and let them speak for themselves," said Chef Hall.
Armed with our own bottle of a chilled French white Bordeaux, Stepney Kitchen is BYOB with a reasonably small fee for glasses, we settled on a few small bites and an entree for two hungry souls in need of a mid-week escape. The Orange Rhubarb Salad was calling my name. Served with roasted beets, quinoa and ricotta salata, the salad was a entertaining medly of flavors and textures. Each vegetable was a discovery thanks to the tang of the orange and rhubarb. We needed a sinful counterpart to the salad and ordered the SK Mac and Cheese which boasts cato corner "fromage du cow," fresh peas and small chunks of smoked bacon. Sinful, indeed and well worth a splurge.
The SK Burger is all natural fresh ground beef topped with caramelized onions, cheddar sauce, lettuce and served with freshly cut fries and a tangy mayonnaise. Do I love thee? Yes, and let me count the ways. The light and almost biscuit-like roll was in perfect proportion to the medium rare salty and tender beef. Caramelized onions and just enough lettuce separated the beef from the bun again letting the main star, the beef, shine. A thin film of cheese paired with the beef gave it a nice velvety feel. Then our last minute addition, the Santa Barbara Fish Taco, was savored. I simply could not let a fish taco on a menu not be tasted. Fresh line caught wild fish, avocado and sofrito... finally, a decent fish taco in Northern Fairfield County. These "small bites" could have easily been dinner for two.
The highlight of the evening may have been the Stepney Kitchen version of surf and turf and what we dubbed, "the perfect summer steak." Slices of sirloin cooked medium rare served over a bed of light-as-air ricotta gnocchi, a slick of pesto, lightly dressed greens, heirloom tomatoes, with the finishing touch of shards of blue crab perched atop the dish. This dish signals, no, screams summer.
Dessert was Strawberry Shortcake which tasted like we were inhaling a farm stand. A pile of sweet and ripe strawberries bound together by fresh cream and hints of hissup were enveloped by a crumbly shortbread. The fresh and clean flavors of this nicely executed dessert were a great way to end this farm-to-table meal.
"Northern Fairfield County is a gem," said Emily Brooks of Edibles Advocate Alliance and author of the forthcoming book, Farmer and Feast Connecticut, "This region hosts some of the richest agricultural land and most progressive, smart, educated, and compassionate Land Tenders (farmers) that I have ever met...We are unbelievably lucky."
I hope Stepney Kitchen's farm-to-table approach (and that of many Fairfield County restaurants such as LeFarm, Schoolhouse at Cannondale, the Boathouse and The Dressing Room) is more than just a passing trend. Weaving the land and the farmers surrounding us to the meals that we choose to eat, the actions of these chefs and their restaurants are honoring our preferences as well.
Marcy Shinbaum on Stepney Kitchen
I was surprised when I walked into Stepney Kitchen. I had heard it was small, but it’s tiny, 12-seats, three tables tiny. It’s the kind of tiny that the chef hears your conversation and occasionally chimes in. Which to me, feels a lot like home and that’s something I loved about Stepney Kitchen. It’s a restaurant at which you will want to linger.
Jason Hall is a self-trained chef. And he is clever chef. At Stepney Kitchen he integrates the best of local, seasonal ingredients into an ingenious variety of dishes without the diner feeling as if he’s eating his way through a Five Ingredients or Less cookbook. And this is how his tiny restaurant can maintain an unexpectedly large menu.
Our meal began with four of the five appetizers offered: Buttermilk Fried Ipswich Clams, Strawberry Gazpacho, Poached Lobster and Stone Gardens Zucchini Tartare. The clams were divine. Light and crispy alone, they were even better topped with the lemon caper remoulade that accompanied them. The Strawberry Gazpacho was a pleasant surprise, not at all cloyingly sweet, it was a smooth early summer gazpacho with just a hint of berry. Garnished with end of season Jones Farm strawberries, shaved fennel and balsamic, my husband, not a cold soup fan by nature, enjoyed every drop. Our most elaborate appetizer was the Poached Lobster with Porcini Hash, a soft poached egg, pickled asparagus and parmesan bubbles accompanied by crispy-grilled toast points. There was a lot going on in this compote dish. The lobster and hash was rich enough on it’s own, but even more velvety with the poached addition. The grilled toast points served their given purpose sponging up every last bit from the bottom of the dish. Our final appetizer, Zucchini Tartare, was essentially mirepoix of zucchini wrapped in mandolin-thin zucchini slices and topped by a ricotta filled crispy squash blossom. The squash blossom was great, though I felt overall the dish could have used a bit more seasoning. The zucchini alone just did not have a defined enough flavor to stand on its own.
From the appetizers we moved on to four distinct and delicious entrees. One of my dining companions saw the scallops special and immediately “called it”. As is often the case when dining with me, duplicate ordering is forbidden, so she acted fast and was rewarded with a perfect plate of Sea Scallops, Farro Risotto, Saffron Braised Fennel and an Apricot Sauce (see above). The scallops were pan seared to perfection, and the entire dish just worked.
The Hanger Steak was the recommended dish of the evening, served over a slaw of shaved fennel, tomato and Blue Crab dressed in an arugula pesto. I was pleasantly surprised to see a few delicate house made dumplings on the plate that tasted exactly like the buttery spaetzle I enjoyed as a child. This is a hearty portion and all components on the plate are terrific. The steak is not local and our server apologized explaining that while the lamb comes from nearby Oxford and the chicken from Wellington Farms, they have not yet found the right local hangar steak purveyor – but they’re working on it
Fresh, local stripped bass was served over the aforementioned zucchini tartare and topped with Israeli cous cous that at first glance looked like roe due to the bright orange color of the roast cherry tomato reduction. The least memorable entrée to me, the fish was a bit dense and could have been taken off the heat maybe a moment earlier. But the starch of the cous cous helped to carry the zucchini and the tomato balsamic reduction was rich and flavorful. Hall’s Chicken was quite good, served over farro with a side of Sport Hill Farms sauteed Collard Greens. I had actually picked up the same collards in by CSA bundle this week and had only enjoyed them raw. Note to self, sauteed they are even better.
By the time we were onto dessert, shoes were off, feet were up and a sense of camaraderie had entered the room as we talked with other diners and the chef.
The dessert special was a perfect slice of Coconut Cake. Maida Heatter dense, and resolutely coconut in taste, it was the table favorite. Still, I could not help but eye the SK Chocolate Cake with Mocha Cream at the next table. I stood, forked perched ready to attack, but the kitchen had noticed and sent over a piece for me to try before I could descend upon the unsuspecting diner.
Stepney Kitchen is BYOB and intends to stay that way, which the customers seem to like. Without the liquor cost it seems, diners are happy to spend a little more on the food. The specials change weekly and the menu changes seasonally, depending on what Hall can get locally and what he is willing to supplement. Hall and his young family live 100 yards from the restaurant. He in the kitchen every minute that the restaurant is open. His creativity and dedication shine through the whole experience of the meal making a night at Stephney Kitchen a perfect evening.
Stepney Kitchen 440 Main Street, Monroe 203.880.9499
Stepney Kitchen is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 5 to 10 pm; for lunch Friday and Saturday from 11 am to 3 pm; and closed Sunday and Monday. Reservations are recommended.