Simsbury, a bucolic community nestled in the Farmington Valley about 25 minutes north of bustling Hartford, has rarely been considered a culinary hotspot. But unexpectedly, this former mill town is now home to what many critics deem the best new restaurant in Connecticut: Present Company, a small, rustic eatery located in what was once a horse stable astride the Farmington River.
Here the unexpected comes as no surprise. Consider the auspices of its co-owner, Jeffrey Lizotte, the acclaimed former chef at Hartford’s lux On20. His resume includes stints at Eric Ripert’s Le Bernadin and David Bouley’s Danube in New York, and two of France’s highly regarded restaurants, La Rupina in Bordeaux and the Michelin-starred La Bastide St. Antoine in Grasse. After all those glittering dining rooms, what is an award winning chef doing at a relaxed 49 seat venue in what some might call “The Sticks”?
“I grew up in Simsbury, played baseball in back of this historic building, and really just wanted to come home,” he explains. What’s more, this is a playful chef, attracted to the unpredictable. He prides himself on creative surprises: unanticipated ingredients, unexpected flavor combinations or even mischievous menu write-ups.
For starters, his amuse bouche was, well, amusing. Sliced watermelon and tomato, marinated in olive oil and garnished with mint, feta cheese and a sprinkle of peanuts. The refreshing soft and juicy taste, offset by the surprising, buttery peanut cap, brought a smile to everyone at our table.
Or consider the squid ink Lizotte squirts into the fluke crudo app. In western cooking, squid ink traditionally adds color and taste to pastas and rice, but in this sushi-style dish, it deepens flavor and invokes the essence of the sea. The ink’s salinity also plays against the sweetness and crunch of a corn fritter. A peppery basquaise spiced up the mélange, one of the extraordinary sauces that confers extra dimension to the cooking of this French trained chef.
Heaped with surprises, the plate served as a perfect starter, a hint of what Lizotte had up his sleeve.
One diner at the table, who grew up in Minnesota farm country, lavished praise on the chef’s unexpected version of classic chicken and dumplings. “It’s nothing like our Midwest dumplings,” she marveled. The packets of foie gras raviolini were delicate and nuanced. “Succulent” best describes the comforting confit of Amish chicken and aromatic mirepoix. “I’d order that again in a heartbeat,” she gushed. “It was so different, so delicious.”
Co-owner and General Manager Tom Gale, who teamed with Chef Lizotte at On20, brought us another Asian themed app, shaved wagu tongue, served with egg salad, and seasoned with roasted shallot and herbs. While most of their ingredients are locally sourced, the kitchen reached out to a farm in Texas for the Japanese style meat. The tongue was amazingly lean, almost carpaccio thin, and the delicate meat was inventively paired with the egg salad. But this was hardly your mother’s egg salad. The version was anointed with salty miso and a nutty brown butter. Exotic, but accessible.
Lizotte enjoys menu writing. On the surface his descriptions are seemingly straight forward, unadorned, and precise. Ah, but with a bit of deception. See his wording for the accompaniments in his pan roasted striped bass:
“Melted zucchini, pancetta, fennel chutney, green olive-sage tapenade”
We wondered how the kitchen “melted” zucchini. The Chef admitted he took a bit of poetic license, creating a figurative description of softening the squash. So let me describe the bass. “A firm texture with a large flake.” “Fresh, in season, pan fried to perfection.” “Maybe the best I’ve ever tasted.”
Bass is a particular favorite of Lizotte, who takes personal pride in his sourcing of sustainable, fresh seafood. Present Company is not far from Connecticut coast, and nearly a third if this season’s menu is fish.
But Lizzote also offers a varied selection of meats, including saddle of veal, grilled beef loin, and a braised leg of lamb.
That cut often tastes musky, a flavor that some find off-putting. And its traditional mint jelly side is right out of a Midcentury cookbook. Present Company’s iteration skips all those clichés, pairing the braised meat with a toothsome roasted eggplant risotto, finished to order, as well as a tomato “fondue,” started with a foundation of reduced lamb stock. The cooked down tomato, both sugary and acidic, nicely accented the textures and tastes of the savory lamb and creamy risotto. No portion of the dish was hurried, and any gaminess in the lamb fat had been slowly braised away.
The menu changes every 2 ½ months. That’s the time it takes for Chef Lizotte to develop a new banquet of surprises for his regular customers. According to Amanda, our very professional server, this menu had just come out, in time to take advantage of the bounty of August, its tomatoes, fruits, veggies and sweet corn.
For desert, the table celebrated the late summer season with a smoky charred peach, fresh from the orchard, bathed in a sauce that was studded with a nutty mystery ingredient. At first we thought the crunch came from nuts of some sort, one of Lizzote’s favorite surprises. Later, he revealed that the ingredient was … wait for it … gluten free buckwheat seeds. The Art of the Unexpected.
We wondered about the origins of the unexpected name “Present Company.”
“It came to me in a Yoga class,” Lizotte explained. His team loved what the two words said about the welcoming hospitality they sought to create at Present Company.
Indeed, when we opened the front door, it seemed somewhat like being invited into a neighbor’s home. A bench shields the traditional greeting stand, and the space beyond is divided between a convivial, country dining room and a smart, modern kitchen. High Tops and a chef’s table overlook the open stoves, where patrons and cooks banter easily, as if prepping a delicious dinner in a friend’s kitchen.
From Stamford, it may take a couple of hours to reach the restaurant in the Tariffville section of Simsbury. But this gem, and its picturesque setting, might well be worth the drive.
2 TUNXIS RD. TARIFFVILLE, CT i 860.658.7890 ipresentcompanyct.com
(The restaurant also offers a five course tasting menu with an optional wine pairing, a $40 prix fixe on Tuesday and Wednesday, and half price wine on Thursdays.)