Even though it’s one of the largest cities in Connecticut, Danbury was once regarded as a restaurant wasteland. The downtown eateries catered to a family demographic who sought a reasonably priced menu that took few culinary chances. Very mid-century. However, in the past few years, a vibrant international food scene has burgeoned on the city’s west side. The cuisines are sophisticated, diverse, and creative, reflective of 21st Century dining.
Many credit Richard Reyes’s Mezón Tapas Bar and Restaurant with transforming Mill Plain Road into destination dining. The year was 2011. Reyes was then a former Wall Street Executive who decided to come home to Connecticut and open a restaurant where people could dine on food prepared in the Latin tradition of his family. From the heart. From the home. Richard was all of 25 … and Mezón posed far more of a risk than even the stock market. At the time, Mill Plain Road was dotted with a string of mostly red-sauce Italian/American restaurants. “Sure, we were taking a chance,” he recently told us, “But we helped break the mold.”
Rich invited CTbites to sample some of the Latin and Caribbean fare that has attracted Mezón’s diverse and discerning clientele from across the region. Though the Paella and the Churrasco are the most popular dishes on the menu, Reyes had other ideas for our feast.
“Let’s do plenty of vegetables and one or two Dominican favorites,” he suggested. “Our Chef, Morgan Vondle, is a master of vegetables and knows to pack in the power.” Reyes couldn’t think of a better vehicle to showcase the range of the restaurant.
To begin the taste tour, Chef Vondle sent out a Ceviche Blanco, one of three ceviches on the menu. The “whitefish” of the day was snapper cured in citric juices and served with onions, cilantro, and sweet potato, all bathed in leche de tigre, the flavorful marinade used to “cook” the fish. An homage to Peru, the dish sparkled with acidic and briny notes, lightly accented by the sweet potato. In this single dish, we tasted the ocean, the orchard, and the garden. An overture for what was to come.
In counterpoint to the tart ceviche, the kitchen prepared a sweet Pan de Maiz, a sensational take on Dominican corn bread. We bit into a traditional torta topped with queso fresco, dressed in a chili lime aioli. Not what we expected at all. This wasn’t conventional airy and light Dixie Cornbread. Rather, the roasted, deeply buttered bread was sweet as a birthday cake, its texture dense and moist. The sugars of the corn played against the salty cheese, with a subtle kick from the chili. “Take off the cheese and aioli,” Richard told us, “and this is the corn bread every Dominican has with coffee in the morning.” Mezón had elevated a simple home staple to a sophisticated restaurant tapas. We asked where Chef Vondle was trained.
“Here. By my mom,” Reyes said proudly. “It all starts with home cooking.”
The big plates on the menu tend to be straightforward and traditional. The small plates are where Mezón performs its riffs. For instance, our next dish, the Coca Mi Tierra, represented an Americanization of a classical Spanish flatbread. Wild mushrooms were added to the roasted tomatoes, cilantro and jack cheese topping, doubling down on the earthiness of the dish. Rarely found in Latin countries, mushrooms add to the “meatiness” of the flatbread, giving it a New England spin. Richard explained that the dish is actually a reinvention of Chilaquiles, a Mexican casserole on tortilla chips.
If the ceviche was salty, the cornbread sweet, the flatbread earthy, the next installment in the flavor sequence, Spanish Pulpo, featured even more complexity. Disks of delicate pan seared octopus carried a hint of sea brine; fingerling potatoes yielded a creamy farm field flavor; Chorizo added some Latin spice; and robust Botija olives from the Peruvian coast lent a bright, sunny accent, a perfect finish to the savory dish. Complex, to be sure. But nicely balanced.
“Now for the crowd pleaser,” Richard announced, as our server, Brenda, brought a paper bag of deep fried chicken pieces and plantains to the table. Pico Pollo is the most popular Dominican street food, no utensils necessary. We dug in, fashioning a sandwich by wedging the chicken between the double fried potato-like tostones. Admission. My guilty pleasure has always been deep fried chicken, Sanders style. Well, forget Kentucky. Give me Dominican. This pollo was the most fully flavored I’ve ever eaten. What distinguishes the chicken is its 24-hour marination in garlic salt, olive oil, and oregano, the national spice of the Dominican Republic. The flavor is driven into the meat by the acid, which breaks down the tissue to make it wonderfully moist and tender.
“It’s my parent’s favorite dish at Mezón,” Richard said. “That tells me we’re doing it right.”
That authenticity was underlined by the restaurant’s signature dessert – Churros, those cinnamon-sugar laden deep fried Latin donuts which are gaining popularity across America. Mezón serves theirs with two dipping sauces, a puddle of deep chocolate and another of leche -- made in house by caramelizing condensed milk. Warm. Comforting. Homey.
When Reyes returned home from Wall Street, he reunited with his boyhood pal from Bethel, Tony Pham, with whom he has collaborated on the Mecha Noodle chain. They have lots in common. Both are first generation immigrants, each of their families are in the food business, and Tony’s creativity perfectly complements Richard’s visionary business style. In fact, they may be the hottest restaurateurs under 30 years old in the State.
Had Rich and Tony ever considered an Asian/Latin fusion restaurant?
“Actually, Mezón and Mecha are going to be cooking together at a Holbrook Farm dinner,
Reyes told us. “We’ve collaborated on many food projects. This will be the first on some plates.”
The date for the dinner is July 23rd at 6:00 pm. Don’t miss this marriage of two distant cuisines that actually emanate from the same place. Home and family.
56 Mill Plain Road, Danbury CT 203-748-0875 http://www.mezonct.com