116 Crown (“One-Sixteen,” as its known to loyal patrons) arrived on the downtown New Haven scene in 2007 with little fanfare, but its impact was immediate and resounding. Nothing quite so chic, so stylish, had been seen in the Elm City. With its lit up green onyx bar easily visible from the street, 116 stood out as a beacon of alternative dining and nightlife, easily distinguishable from the loud clubs and Irish pubs on nearby blocks. A sophisticated crowd sought out the modestly sized space in search of haute mixology creations – extraordinary cocktails containing exotic ingredients – and worldly small plates to nibble on. The perfectly pitched décor, highlighted by impressive design touches like an iconic bright blue Bang & Olufsen phone at the hostess stand and foot pedal-operated sinks by the bathrooms, and an undeniably hip ambiance perpetuated by a fantastic of-the-moment musical playlist, kept the cool kids coming back.
So what has changed in the last five years? While the aesthetic has remained intact, a welcome, albeit slight, shift of focus seems to have occurred – more and more, the food feels front and center. According to owner John Ginnetti, when he and his wife Danielle first developed the menu, they sought to offer innovative, easily sharable plates that could be enjoyed as snacks or could be combined to constitute a full dinner. Thus, while the food was never a secondary consideration within the overall concept, it might be fair to observe that serving “proper” meals was. Now, however, the menu has been expanded and beefed up a bit. Along with a sizable selection of small plates, pizzas, raw bar items, and charcuterie and cheese options, there are now five substantial entrees on the regular menu, ranging in price from $18 to $26, as well as a burger and a daily pasta special.
On a recent visit, I had no difficulty eating a filling meal of which my Jewish mother would approve. I started off with a cocktail from the new Happy Hour menu, a remarkably generous list of $5 drinks and small plates offered daily from 5-7 p.m. Dubbed the Doc Holiday, this lovely concoction of Old Overholt Rye, cane syrup, lemon and lime juice, and fresh strawberries was light and easy-sipping with just enough whisky flavor. My dining companion enjoyed a Pisco Sour Remix, a veritable bouquet of a drink: Pisco Porton, lemon juice, simple syrup, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, quail egg white, and orange bitters, all garnished with a handful of chervil, a snapdragon blossom, and that quail’s egg shell. She deemed it an ideal summer drink.
We opted to try several of the “snacks” on the Happy Hour menu as appetizers: An order of “Devil’d Eggs” announced itself with the intoxicating scent of frizzled shallots which, along with crispy strips of pancetta, lent the half orbs a nice salty crunch not normally associated with deviled eggs. A Tuna Pinxto (Spanish term for snack served on a skewer) came next. A truly odd combination of seared tuna dressed with a soy and sesame sauce, cherry tomatoes, black olives, and a whole mint leaf, these little treats were bizarrely reminiscent of BOTH salad Nicoise and yakitori. Somehow, these disparate elements were brought together by the sweetness of the tomato and the brightness of the mint, which cut through the rich sesame mixture. These should be eaten in one, all-inclusive bite. Our final appetizer, fried oysters, was my favorite. Three huge oysters, fried to an exquisite crisp, were topped with a light aioli and a superb spicy jalapeno relish. Awesome.
Next up was one of two pizzas on the menu: the Farmer’s Pizza. In a city famous for its pizza pies and with so many joints in town, it may seem odd to include them on the menu, but this version had plenty to distinguish it from the slew of other pies around: a crispy thin crust; zesty tomato sauce, liberally seasoned with minced anchovies and strong cracked black pepper; a generous sprinkling of parmigiano reggiano; and a perfectly executed fried egg resting in the center. The elements really came together, with the runny yolk of the egg balancing out the assertive salinity of the anchovy-spiked sauce.
A Panzanella Salad with Burrata paired acidic tomatoes in a piquant balsamic vinaigrette with delightfully creamy burrata. Instead of large chunks of rustic bread usually found in panzanella salad, this one included well-seasoned croutons which, because the salad was served on a plate rather than swimming in a bowl of tomato juices and olive oil, maintained their crunch.
An entrée of perfectly seasoned deboned lamb rack, seared in a pan and finished in the oven, was served sliced, revealing the medium-rare meat. The lamb, which was quite rich and fairly gamey, was served on a terrific mélange of fresh fava beans, enoki and maitake mushrooms, and diced bacon. It was a winning expression of the season.
Desserts were a Smoked Chocolate Mousse and a Goat’s Milk Cheesecake. The mousse was a straightforward rendition - extremely light and fluffy – but did include a cute touch of a mini vanilla “milkshake” accompaniment. The smoke was not easily detected. The cheesecake, plated atop a swash of bright purple beet and rosewater puree, was anything but straightforward. In fact, it was entirely unique. The tangy, grassy goat’s milk cheese played well off the intense earthiness of the beet puree, but, with just a touch of sweetness, this was more like a cheese course disguised as a dessert. A little sneaky, but quite delicious.
Five years after first opening its doors, 116 Crown is still as cool as ever. It’s also a worthy destination for a great meal.
116 Crown 116 Crown Street, New Haven, CT (203) 777-3116
Ralph Kantrowitz is the Publisher of Great Restaurants of Fairfield, Westchester, and the Hudson Valley Magazine.
[Photography courtesy of Kelly Jensen of Kelly Jensen Photography]