“What’s a nice Greek girl like you doing running a place like this?” I ask Maria Pertesis, who with her mother Katrina, has just opened Cactus Rose, a vibrant new Southwestern themed cantina in Wilton. “My family has owned a Greek diner in Fairfield for almost 40 years,” she offers. “So my mother and I wanted to try something new and exciting.”
And that’s exactly what these amazing women have wrought. Under their husbandry, the former Mediterranean Grill in the Wilton Center has blossomed into a fun-filled, warm, and welcoming hacienda. Indeed, the restaurant came up almost overnight, as if itself a desert flower.
The menu, overseen by Executive Chef Lisa Varnberg, presents a Connecticut riff on Southwestern, Am-Mex and Native American cuisine. Most of the eclectic offerings are organic, wild-caught, and free range.
Near the flames of an indoor hearth, taste the Tuna Tostada, an alliteration of desert and sea. The fish, lightly seared on the outside, yet sashimi cool at the core, is paired with a pickled jalapeno salad, warm refried beans and a crisp, blue corn tortilla. Tiny sticks of jicama offer their own crunch and sweetness to the complex salad. It’s the perfect introduction to the lightness of Varnberg’s touch with a cuisine Americans think of as thick and heavy. At times, she almost defies gravity.
As in the smokey seafood cocktail. Served in an oversized bar glass, the app seems almost pre-prandial. The ensemble of lump crab, lobster and shrimp carries a nice smoked flavor, which is punched up with chipotle, smoothed with avocado, and invigorated with fresh lime. The generous serving is more than ample for sharing.
The most popular app is the Most Interesting Clams, probably because they are steamed with Dos Equis. Chile lime butter and caramelized garlic toast seal the deal.
The beer batter on the ample Poblano Chile relleno was almost delicate, if not ethereal, and its blanco mixed cheese and a red chile salsa serve as a direct salute to conventional Santa Fe fare.
Yes, there are nachos, quesadilla and a potato filled empanada for the gringos, but don’t expect Taco Bell or chips and salsa. Everything is served with a distinctive Cactus Rose twist.
Mexican-Southwestern cuisine provides a perfect platform for creativity, according to Jody Pennette of the restaurant consulting group CB5 who worked with Katrina and Maria in developing Cactus Rose.
“It allows tremendous latitude for interpretation,” he says. “When combining the classic dishes and the thrill of working with intense spices, chefs can find endless variations to craft their own culinary voice.”
CB5 introduced Maria and Katrina to Chef Vanberg, who trained at the French Culinary Institute and has worked with both Todd English and the Barcelona team. Maria confesses, “At our first tasting, she had me at the shrimp.”
“Seared Grande Shrimp”, as the name implies, features jumbo crustaceans, seared in the shell to maximize flavor, then served peeled, floating on a wave of chorizo cream and fresh watercress salad. As the rich, meaty cream enhances the succulence of the shrimp, the result is somewhere between robust and light.
As an homage to Maria and Katrina’s Greek culinary heritage, Varnberg created a meat not usually thought of as Southwestern: lamb. Charred and carmelized outside, juicy and pink within, served with red chile sauce and chayote ratatouille, the New Mexico Lamb Chops may be the best I’ve ever eaten. Mediterranean? Mayan? Midwestern? Who cares. The meat exploded with flavor and complexity. It was the first lamb chop I’ve ever tasted that seemed layered with different flavors and textures. Not to be missed.
When Maria and Katrina opened the restaurant, their entrees included free range chicken, heritage pork loin, wild
salmon and snapper as well as steaks and a lobster enchilada, but due to demand, the restaurant decided to add the more traditional fajitas, from skirt steak asada to chicken.
Deserts flirt with decadency, but don’t give in to full sin. In the chocolate chile pots de crème, the custard embraces a fresh blackberry, and scented with dried red chile, is lightened with a whipped maple cream.
A generous scoop of vanilla ice cream dominates the mini toasted pecan pie. Spiked with ancho, the desert sits atop a small light crust. It’s somewhere between a sundae and a pie, another of Chef Varnberg’s whimsical fusions.
Her unique blending of cusines and culture is epitomized in the quatro leche cake: a fluffy white buttermilk sponge, soaked in four creams, coconut milk, whipped cream, candied almond frosting, and creamy cajeta-caramel sauce. Lisa told us that the recipe came from her Columbian grandmother: That’s the South American in her DNA. But there’s also Bedford, where she grew up. So Lisa decided to add a spritz of New England sea salt to the Columbian recipe, and in the process created more than mere fusion. The leche cake is utter alchemy.
With the bill comes a complimentary cone of pink cotton candy. For the children in all of us.
Cactus Rose is open for lunch and dinner 7 days a week. Reservations are highly recommended, but a wait at the bar seems quite bearable. It’s big, convivial, jammed and features all manner of tequila. There’s an outdoor patio for more seating when the weather warms a bit. And before it does, Katrina and Maria provide outdoor flaming torch heaters and hearths to keep their guests snug.
For sometimes sleepy Wilton, a gathering spot and watering hole whose fires light up the night.
5 River Road, Wilton
Photography courtesy of Thomas McGovern Photography