Instantly familiar, yet completely new, Fairfield’s six-week-young The Chelsea has already settled quite nicely into the dining scene. With an Unquowa Place address, a steady lunch and a boisterous evening crowd–it's practically a Fairfield County regular.
This is thanks in large part to a familiar and accomplished trio of owners responsible for creating many hot spots we know and love: Scott Beck, co-owner of Match and The Loft in South Norwalk; Matt Storch, Chef and co-owner of Match in South Norwalk; and Kevin McHugh, Co-Owner of Grey Goose in Southport and Spotted Horse in Westport.
Beyond the obvious street cred, the palpable success of the restaurant is found in the breeziness of its well-designed space (McHugh’s cozy palette of reclaimed rough-sawn wood, white subway tiles and raw glass fixtures) paired with a globally-inspired menu long on classics. The Chelsea’s menu is a witty take on many dishes we all know and love, combined with a consistency of quality that comes from veteran owners and chefs who know the Fairfield County appetite very well.
Although, as I am, you’ll be wont to compare The Chelsea to Match since Matt Storch is behind much of the menu, you’ll find that comparison flawed. The Chelsea is, in fact, its own beast. Named and inspired by the concept of a gastropub, hence its London neighborhood namesake, this stateside version has serious case of wanderlust. The Chelsea particularly likes to vacation in Southeast Asia, pulling in flavors from that region for several of its dishes including Banh Mi, a Noodle bowl, and a Ponzu-spiked salad. Storch and Chef de Cuisine Jeff Spence are clearly having fun with this global take on pub grub, with alternate stops in China (Calamari with General Tso’s glaze), Mexico by way of Greece (Taco Salad with Mexican Spanikopita), Vietnam (Banh Mi) and a nod to the American South (Fried Chicken) and North (Lobster Roll).
The menu, identical for lunch and dinner, is artfully arranged on light wooden clipboards, broken up into three sections: “apps,” “just tossed,” “sandwiched” and “more substantial.” This dining vernacular makes it easy for us to gauge our cravings and is further broken down into two sizes for lunch and dinner, or medium to large appetites. Enough with superlatives, let’s dive into the menu.
What could be referred to as “Mexican Spanikopita,” The Chelsea composes a singular, if modestly named, Mexican Salad. A tufted wedge of iceberg topped with avocado cream and accompanied by a scoop of guacamole, a smear of sour cream, and a tomato-olive tapenade. Perched atop the tower, is a triangle of lightly seasoned ground beef wrapped in flaky phyllo dough. This dish epitomizes the kitchen’s approach to food; playful and self-effacing with an attention to quality execution and presentation.
Some other small plates I would recommend include the Crudo, which I'm predicting be an instant classic. A row of slivered raw tuna arranged at linear attention in a soy-yuzu-truffle sauce, accompanied by jalapeño, rice crackers & blocks of avocado. There is a lot going on in this dish, which is a nice plate to share as a starter or save for yourself as a light lunch. Like the Mexican Salad, this dish boasts layers of textures, but with a nice play of sweet, salty, and umami.
Another dish, perfect for summer’s lowered appetite expectations, is a southeast asian take on a classic Bufula and Tomato dish. Heirloom cherry tomatoes (when in season) with slivers of onion, bean sprouts, and basil chiffonade, dressed lightly with peppered Ponzu (a citrus-laced soy-based sauce), served with lightly charred bread.
When I mentioned lighter and brighter as a menu signature, my short term memory failed to recall the Fried Chicken appetizer. Chicken legs soaked in buttermilk, dredged in flour and fried to a golden craft-paper yellow/brown served with corn-avocado salsa, waffle strips and maple gravy. You can try, but you really can’t argue with the power of fried poultry.
There are many other eye-catching “apps” and “just chopped” salads. But for a more substantial lunch, the hits are certainly the sandwiches or the entrees where the pattern is similar–instantly familiar, yet strikingly new. If you know and love Matt’s specials you may have experienced his love of Vietnamese food, especially his take on Banh Mi. The Chelsea’s version is close to the real thing, but bit more buttoned up and substantial, with roasted pork belly and soda braised shank with layers of crunchy and lightly acidic vegetables such as carrot, and some cilantro, served between layers of baguette with house-made sweet potato fries (although chips are pictured above). The rest of the sandwiches sound like familiar friends I’d like to reunite with over beers: Sloppy Joe, Lobster Roll, Oyster Bun, and Grilled Cheese BLT.
A few other menu shout-outs go to the CIA-style chicken, a dish that skews high and low. The high: Matt references one of the first formative lessons of his CIA tenure which included mastering three separate cuts. The (guilty pleasure) low: a “robusto” take in its layers of spice, recalling the zest of the store-bought spice packages that haunt the pantries of our youth. The verdict: Matt’s love of chicken thighs wins, and creates a lemony, garlicky, and quite spicy take on the classic Chicken Scarpiello. A few “more substantial” dishes shift heftier, with a Steak and Eggs, Ribs and Gnocchi all begging to be paired with cooler temperatures and a hearty appetite.
What all these seemingly-classic and pub-familiar dishes have in common is an effort to please, and they do, with a signature bravura finish of ponzu, truffle oil, hoisin and so on. This continues to the already busy bar, with a cocktail menu studded with summery spiked lemonades and tried-and-true year-round cocktails such as the Negroni (with hat tip to Jeff Marron) and a Penfield Beach Martini (coconut vodka, lime, simple syrup, mint).
The Chelsea may look and feel like its upscale restaurant brethren, but leave the formal cruise wear at home. The new kid on the block is a much more relaxed, self-effacing and decidedly whimsical take many dishes we know, some we love, and several we should get to know better.
The Chelsea is located at 12 Unquowa Place in Fairfield, CT. Visit their Facebook page for the latest of their website http://thechelseaff.com. The kitchen is open 11:30 to 10 pm Sunday through Thursday and Friday/Saturday 11:30 to 11 pm.