Though open for just two weeks, Kala Bistro has already attracted a small throng of regulars. The night we dined, the staff recognized more than half the patrons, greeting them warmly, like old friends.
Our server, Rose Ledee, pointed out a couple at a table on the patio. “This is the third time they’ve come in the past week!” she gushed, proudly.
In contrast to the formal, fine dining of Olea, Manuel Romero’s acclaimed Spanish hot spot in downtown New Haven, his new restaurant is suburban, relaxed, and very much a part of a bustling neighborhood that borders North Haven and Hamden. Lower-keyed (and lower-priced), the bistro menu is far more global and just as scrumptious.
Consider the Bao Pork Belly, the epitome of Chinese dim sum. The sweet, soft bun pillows a slice of savory, chewy pork belly, their contrasting textures framed by a crunchy cucumber disk, tart pickled carrots, briny hoisin, and mustard seeds. Despite the complexity of flavors, Chef Romero has created a sandwich that tastes surprisingly simple and subtle.
n.b. This seems to be the Year of the Sandwich. For instance, Bon Appetite has crowned a humble sandwich shop in New Orleans as the Best New American Restaurant of 2017. Appropriately, Kala’s au courant menu features a number of tasty sandwiches.
To wit: the Shrimp Roll. Romero whips up a tasty salad of wild shrimp, mayo, celery and old bay, and piles it inside a toasted dinner roll. Homemade salty potato chips complement the uncomplicated and well balanced roll. Again, unfettered simplicity is Kala’s hallmark.
That light, sure touch extends across the menu. Another small plate, a fluffy salted cod fish mousse, seemed ethereal in texture, the puréed bacalao dotted with capers, chives, and red bell pepper. The dish may be meant to be eaten with a fork or spoon, but in the spirit of Kala’s playful vibe, we deployed a square of griddled toast to scoop up the creamy dip. No spills and thrills. Just nuances and notes.
Though much of the cuisine may be global, a few of Chef Romero’s dishes are distinctly Spanish. For instance, the Potato Omelet is an homage to traditional Spanish home cooking. An egg crepe envelops a creamy potato mixture flecked with onion, bell pepper, and sweet piquillo pepper. We dipped each bite into a puddle of aioli sauce, suddenly transported to a cottage along Spain’s sun splashed coastline.
In fact, the restaurant’s name -- Kala -- honors the hidden coves and powdery beaches on the Isle of Ibiza, where Romero frolicked as a kid.
Another national classic, the Piquillo Pepper, a small, sweet chili, comes stuffed with yellowfin tuna. The shape of the Piquillo (which means “small beak” in Spanish), forms a natural vessel for seafood, meat, or cheeses. The fish is marinated with an escabeche, a vinegary sauce augmented with carrot ginger puree, rendering the chopped tuna into a tartare like consistency, flavored with sweet chili.
The skin-on fillet of trout arrived resting on a bed of buttery Lyonnaise potatoes and sweet shallots, its flavor embellished by a sharp Dijon mustard sauce. The crispy bite of the skin nicely accented the delicate trout flesh, unblemished with any gamey notes. Cooking fish relies somewhat on precision, but more on intuition. Kala’s trout was grilled to perfection, best done by instinctive timing.
The duck confit cassoulet is listed on the menu as “Kala’s version.” Yes, the baked duck is served with the standard bacon, herbs, and creamy white beans. But Romero replaces the traditional garlic sausage with boudin noir, a soft and juicy French blood sausage -- sourced out of New Jersey -- that literally melts in your mouth. Rich, hearty, and very comforting, the casserole of duck, beans, and sausage was the most robust of any of the dishes that we sampled.
On reflection, perhaps the best description for the entire experience might be “Homey,” an apt signature for this warm and welcoming bistro. Like most of the customers that evening, we will surely be returning to the neighborhood.
The tasting was provided gratis by the restaurant, which in no way influenced this review
Kala Bistro 1990 Whitney Avenue, North Haven 203.889.2275
[Photographs courtesy of Kala Bistro and Mara Lavitt]