Steven Lewandowski knows something about breaking new ground. He worked at Montrachet, Drew Nieporant’s’s transformative French restaurant that ignited a dining renaissance in once grim Lower Manhattan.
"I think we can change the game here, too," Lewandowski told CTBites during a recent preview of his new Harlan Social at Harbor Point, the amazing redevelopment project now bourgeoning on Stamford's South Side.
"When we first checked the area, it was a bit desolate. Like Tribeca when my friend Drew came in there. But when I saw that Fairway was here, I just knew this would be a good home for us, too.
Fade Out. Fade In. One year later.
Harbor Point is booming and Lewandowski is about to find out if his multimillion dollar bet was on the money.. On August 7th, Harlan Social opens its doors, the first high end restaurant in HP. ("Harlan" is his son's first name, "Social" because the restaurant will be a gathering place for the thousands of people who will soon live, work, play ... and, yes, EAT ... in Harbor Point.)
Lewandowski's concept is "American Gastropub," a New York style array of small plates, entrees, sandwiches, cheeses, and pastas, all seemingly familiar to the local palate, but flavored with intriguing surprises. Steven enjoys playful little culinary games like that.
Case in point, his Harlan Burger. At first blush: the old American Classic. But bite in, and the world spins. It's not a burger as much as a delivery system for a mélange of contrapuntal tastes, textures and international flavors.
Steven starts with a half pound patty of brisket, short rib and chuck blended at LaFrieda’s meatery in Manhattan (one of Harlan’s many New York City purveyors). The burger is grilled and brushed with homemade Worcestershire sauce carrying subtle notes of Asian soy and hoisin. Over that Lewandowski spreads a sauce of a pepper jack and cheddar cheese in mushroom stock with garlic, shallots, mustard, cream and Six Point Ale from Red Hook. But wait there's more: a layer of sweet jam comprised of onions caramelized in bacon fat and studded with Italian pancetta. All this sits atop a Portuguese Muffin, which is sweeter than its English cousin, and less nook and cranied. The bun is sealed on the outside so it absorbs the juices without getting soggy. Brooklyn meets Beijing meets Lisbon.
Steven plays the opposite game with his signature Bahn Mi sandwich. Traditionally, the Vietnamese fill the baguette with fried pork or pate in a sauce. But Lewandowski Americanizes this Asian mainstay by stuffing the bread with Gulf shrimp, pickled veggies and a spicy mayo. "Ban Mi marries a Poor Boy," the Chef says, with a whimsical smile. 'Nam meets N'awlins.
In the kitchen Lewandowski is somewhere between playful and mischievous. At Harlan, he wants food to be fun -- even at times a guessing game.
For instance, his menu lists a Braised Octopus Salad and identifies the ingredients as celery, potato and lemon. However, there is no mention of a secret ingredient which imparts a distinctive ping to the salad. It's Yuzu Juice, a Japanese citrus with an aromatic floral taste distinct from lemon, lime, and western citrus. Most Americans have never heard of Yuzu, but they've probably tasted the juice with Sashimi or Sushi. The taste may seem familiar to a diner, yet foreign. Steven loves it when a puzzled table wonders "what is in that?" because that question contributes to the "Social" vibe.
A CIA grad, Lewandowski recently served as executive chef at Tibecca Grill. But for a time he worked with Regent Seven Seas Cruise Lines, and his adventures with world cuisine influence the menu of this so-called "American" gastrobpub.
Exhibit A. Korean Fried Chicken. Harlan's bird is far crispier than Southern Fried, because it gets fired twice. First the poultry is dredged in flour, cooked at low heat for 15-18 minutes and removed. The dredging flour is doubled with corn-starch and water until it's almost a crepe batter. Lewandowski returns the chicken to the pan at high heat and then serves it with a chili sauce whose sweetness plays off the pungent pickled green beans and kimchi, Korean cabbage. But Lewandowski isn’t satisfied with just that. He can't help but extend the taste game a bit more, adding a little of his secret Yuzu sauce.
As homage to his Slavic heritage, Lewandowski studs his German bratwurst sandwich with Kielbasa and French Sauerkraut, and cuddles them in a pretzel roll from Sigmund’s in the East Village. He also has fun with Pierogi, the national food of Poland. Instead of filling the dumpling with traditional potatoes, forcemeats, or mushrooms, he stuffs it with old fashioned American braised short ribs and caramelized onions. Polish Fusion.
He points to his braised short ribs as Harlan’s signature large plate entree. Steven told us that he's cooked with America's top chefs from Keller to Boulud and he’ll match his ribs with anyone. "My secret is that I braise the ribs in half red wine and half demi glace from the beginning, so as it’s reducing and glazing, the meat takes on the fruit flavor of that port and cabernet, which gives it a sweetness that balances the fat."
The ribs undergo an initial braise for 3 1/2 hours. Then the meat is taken from the bone and cooked at 210 degrees for another 4 to 5 hours. Low and Slow. The succulent result is accompanied by a scrumptious parmesan potato puree.
Since Stamford has an insatiable Italian appetite, Harlan features a fresh Mozzarella bar which overlooks the kitchen, perfect for grazing and socializing. Then there's what Lewandowski describes as a "simple" Pasta Station. But at Harlan nothing is that simple. Consider the gravity defying Parisian Gnocchi. Rather than potato, the dough is Pate a Choux, which is used in French puff pastries. Eggs are added. So is mustard! Since there’s always a lot going on at Harlan, the Gnoochi is served with summer veggies. Salza Verde. A touch of tarragon. A bit of mint. . Italian with a riff -- and no red checkered tablecloths.
Indeed, there are no tablecloths at all in Harlan. Steven even plays a game with the napkin holders. Open then up, and voila they’re menus – a clear signal at the very start of the meal that what lies ahead will be fun rather than formal.
Every dish on the menu can also be ordered in the massive tavern room, which will doubtless become a Harbor Point hangout, with ample banquets, tables, and seats at the bar. Harlan features 32 beers on tap, in bottles and in cans. The wine list of 100 bottles runs from $33 to $140. Steven also offers a special “Owner’s Collection,” drawn from his private stock, with bottles costing up to $750.
The bar serves a full range of liquor and specialty cocktails, like the Drunken Palmer. It’s an original concoction of Honey Jack Daniels and homemade iced tea sweetened with agave juice. And then the “3B.” Bourbon, Beer and Honey. “Where’s the third B?”
“Where Honey comes from.” Steven loves word play, too.
As part of the synergy at Harbor Point, Steven will be pouring tap beer from the area’s very own microbrewery – Half Full -- which just opened, the first in Southern Connecticut. The restaurant’s furniture is supplied by Design Within Reach, whose national headquarters and showroom loom across the parking lot. And of course, just steps away, there’s Fairway. Lewandowski plans on availing himself of the Market’s fabulous culinary resources and creating a number of cross promotions. A community has begun.
Indeed, Steven reached out to the local restaurant community while developing the Harlan concept. He sought advice not only from his close friend Drew Nieporant, but the area's top chefs and restaurateurs like Michel Nischan, Bill Taibe, Scott Lawton, and even Bobby Valentine. Stamford’s favorite son and baseball guru loved the concept, and predicted that Harbor Point would be destination dining, especially with its easy access from downtown and ample, free parking. He thought the Harlan Social concept, would be a big hit.
And if anyone knows about hits, it’s Bobby V. And game changers.
Harlan Social firstname.lastname@example.org | 121 Towne Street, Stamford CT 203.883.8000