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Sunday
Jan302011

The Schoolhouse At Cannondale: A Wilton Gem

The Schoolhouse at Cannondale was built  just after the Civil War, in 1872  and has been owned and operated by Chef Tim LaBant, a native of Wilton, since 2006.  The setting of this authentic one room schoolhouse along the banks of the rushing Norwalk River, makes for an unusual destination dining experience.  The deep chocolate hue on the walls, the comfortably upholstered banquet seating that runs under the windows that frame the river just outside, the simple decor accented by 4-5 framed photos of classes of students and teachers from over 100 years ago, sets the tone.  This quintessential New England scene is authentic, inviting and superb.

Our first visit was for dinner the week before Christmas.  We let the chef know, three days prior to our reservation,  that half of our party was vegetarian.  Although the menu clearly states that “substitutions are politely declined,” LaBant is happy to accommodate those with specific food restrictions if he knows about them 3-4 days in advance.  With a focus on sourcing as many ingredients as possible from local farms, a commitment to using meats raised without the use of hormones or antibiotics, and an adherence to strict guidelines for sustainable fishing, discriminating diners have high expectations about the quality and inventiveness of the offerings at the Schoolhouse.  We were not disappointed.

 

We began with a generous bowl of warming mushroom soup.  The velvety puree glistened with truffle oil and rewarded with deep earthy flavors.  We enthusiastically shared “Egg in the bread with arugula salad of pickled shimeji and preserved yuzu."  The poached egg was nestled neatly in a thick brioche bread cup and provided rich contrast to the sharp greens and pickled shimeji, Asian mushrooms with a pleasantly springy texture.  The preserved yuzu is a tart Asian fruit which added another layer of mystery to the pleasingly tangy yet surprisingly rich combination of ingredients. This dish was served with bacon for the meat eaters in our party, and the rich cured pork was a perfect complement to its usual breakfast partner. Unafraid to ruin our appetites, we moved on to the beet ravioli filled with salty feta and mache, presented on a bold magenta puddle of beet puree and punctuated by bright green shelled pistachios. There were many contrasts on the plate: gorgeous counterpoints of flavors and textures and bright colors to awaken the senses.  

 

As we transitioned to the main courses, our selections divided us along the carnivore/vegetarian line. We opted for the chesnut agnolotti filled with Maitake mushrooms enveloped in a parsnip, apple and brown butter emulsion.  At first glance we spotted fish roe atop this delicate dish but realized this accent came from tiny pearls of tart apple...a clever ruse. Chef LaBant loves his exotic mushrooms and just when we thought we had eaten our fill of exquisite mushrooms in the soup,  we were thrilled to detect mushrooms again, in these folded pockets of pasta.  We shared a generous plate of Bronzini with rich saffron risotto, preserved tomatoes, fennel, and a generous mound of black trumpet mushrooms.

 

On the carnivorous side, the “Flat Iron Steak with celery root puree, trumpet mushrooms, and Brussels sprouts” arrived with a perfect uniform pink interior, a sous-vide preparation resulting in the tenderest possible mouthfeel. The velvety meat gave way to an intense beefy flavor, all heightened by the delicate sauce and highly textured mushrooms.  Two of our favorite cuts of pork came paired in our next dish, Berkshire pork loin and cured pork belly. These were accented with creamy polenta and sweet baby beets, a rustically elegant and expertly cooked entree.

 

LaBant’s farm to table approach produced nuanced and complex flavors that thrilled each of us that eve.  He is wonderfully unselfconscious as exemplified in his friendly, highly trained servers and his offering a selection of artisanal cheeses as first course or dessert.  We asked our knowledgeable server to present a selection for the table.  He carefully described each cheese and its nutty or fruity jewel-like accompaniment in this well curated course.

 

Not wanting to miss out on the chocolate souffle, we ordered our dessert at the start of the meal. We had forgotten all about it when it was presented to us with a happy mound of pink speckled candy cane ice cream drizzled in dark chocolate sauce.  The subtle crunch in the ice cream was an unexpected and delightful nod to the season.  Our only regret was that we couldn't possibly make room to taste any of the other pastry chef’s desserts, which included wildflower honey panna cotta with gingerbread spiced caramel corn, star anise honey and earl grey tea sorbet.  We won’t wait too long before returning to explore the rest of the dinner and dessert menu.

 

We did return a few weeks later for brunch, on a bright but frigid day.  The scene was even more magical in the daylight,  as the snow capped rocks along the river’s edge poked through to remind us of the river’s presence.   I am a big fan of small and focused menus.   Fewer choices, on a Sunday morning, seems just right.  We easily chose four of the five breakfast items to share with our group.  For those ready for lunch, the choices were “Schoolhouse burger” with black pepper-truffle mayo, served with hand cut fries and a side salad or Bronzini with black trumpet mushrooms, brussels and polenta croutons.

 

Here is the scoop on the breakfast items:  I would go back to The Schoolhouse this afternoon if I could, just for the Schoolhouse Benedict.  The perfectly poached eggs were indeed fresh and local from Millstone Farm, just as I suspected as soon as the bright orange yolk made its appearance.  It was layered on Wave Hill's lightly toasted bread with barely cooked spinach leaves and a hollandaise sauce worthy of a prize.  I requested it without the bacon but it comes with, also, and based on our previous dining experience, the bacon is sure to be wonderful.  

We also shared the Frittata with cipolini onions and spinach, topped with a generous amount of duck confit, which my Francophile friend declared was perfect and an unexpected treat.  The frittata was moist and slightly sweet with a generous serving of caramelized onions.  The table shared a large slice of quiche with bacon, chives and goat cheese which was light and creamy with a pleasant tang from the goat cheese.  Served with fresh greens and crisp potato rosti on the side, it could have fed two.  Our only disappointment was the French toast brioche, but disappointment may be too strong a word.  After delighting to unexpected elements in each of the breakfast items, the French toast seemed well, a little basic.  Still, a generous portion of purple blackberries and quality maple syrup are not a bad thing if you want to stick with something more basic. And dessert after brunch?  Completely over the top but we couldn't resist. We shared a warm, moist square of spiced bread pudding topped with coffee ice cream as we lingered over more strong coffee served from individual French presses.   AH, YES!  One last taste of hot chocolate with homemade squares of marshmallows, a super rich, “stand your spoon up in it” ambrosia topped off a wonderful winter brunch in this cozy and exceptional spot along the river in Cannondale.

Note: A tree covered patio along the Norwalk River  is open for lunch and dinner on Fridays and Saturdays beginning in May, weather permitting.

visit www.theschoolhouseatcannondale.com for more information
The SCHOOLHOUSE is located at 34 Cannon Road, Wilton 203-834-9816
The Schoolhouse at Cannondale on Urbanspoon
 

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Reader Comments (8)

Mmmmm... My favorite restaurant in this area! ... Maybe anywhere.

January 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeff

The Schoolhouse sounds fabulous - you've made my mouth water! I can't wait to make a reservation.

January 31, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdeanna

It's my neighborhood go-to for any special occasion, always enjoy visiting and love the outdoor patio. Thanks for the great review Liz.

January 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmy Kundrat

Great review, Liz.

While I have been an enthusiastic diner since Schoolhouse opened, I would point out two subtle changes that have taken the place to the next level. First, dishes are not as understated as they were a couple years ago - brightening up the egg with the preserved yuzu (a dish I also loved) typifies that. Secondly, Tim seems to be shaking up the proteins a little more than when he first opened - while preparations changed, the basic ingredients did not change so much. That is no longer the case.

It is worth mentioning that Schoolhouse offers a $40 four-course dinner on Thursdays. While the usual menu has five aps, five mains, and five desserts, the prix fixe is two choices per course (which makes for a perfect date night, as a couple can order everything). $40 for this quality is a steal.

Finally, kudos to Tim and Schoolhouse for having a customer friendly corkage policy. While they do have a small but nice list, you can bring your own bottle for a $20 corkage charge.

My favorite restaurant in the metropolitan area is Blue Hill at Stone Barns. If you haven't been to Schoolhouse, think of it as a tiny version of the same kind of thing.

I know that "best restaurant in Fairfield County" is a phrase that we all throw around a lot - but this is the real deal, with the quality and precision that is (to me) far beyond some other very good F2T restaurants in the area.

January 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChris Grimm

Thanks for pointing out some important additional info, Chris!

February 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterliz

I have to give this place another try. My wife and I went about a year ago and were really disappointed by the food. The place is beautiful and we keep hearing great things so I guess it's time to head back.

February 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJordan

Hey Chris........ your over micro analyzing going out to eat. Eat, pay your bill, tip, and leave.

February 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterfoodieonline

@foodieonline...Seconded. LMAO!

February 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEunigo Montoya

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