“It’s a 21st Century iteration of a 19th Century Inn,” Robert promised. So, before the six of us scattered to warmer climes for the winter, we chose the newly opened Tavern at GrayBarns for our farewell dinner.
After a pre-prandial toast, our party was served an un-presupposing bread and butter plate. Standard fare? Hardly. Executive Chef Ben Freemole had us at first bite.
That homespun bread perfectly captures the ethos of Andy Glazer’s sweeping reconstruction and fortification of the legendary Silvermine Tavern and Inn, its footprint reduced by almost a third. In this new “Haven of Refuge,” both décor and dining dazzle, no detail taken for granted, not even a humble bread and butter starter.
Flour Salt Water dough is handcrafted from scratch on the premises by Rob VanKeuren, Wilton’s acclaimed artisanal baker. As the name implies, the sourdough is created with just salt, water, and flour, which can take 3-9 days to ferment, rest and rise. The elaborate prep produces a crunchy, chewy and very elastic texture. Freemole infuses ramp into the unsalted butter, the comforting fat amplifying the clean flavors of the crusty bread. The table raved.
The stage was set for an evening of extraordinary dining in a stunning setting. A dramatic stone fireplace, rustic posts and beams and wide oak board floors invoke times past and present.
“Our menu certainly reflects the history of the site,” Chef Freemole told us. “It’s modern tavern food.”
For instance, consider his version of traditional Connecticut tavern oysters, pulled from the nearby Sound as they have been for centuries. After roasting the mollusks on river rocks at 500 degrees to concentrate the briny flavor, the chef adds ‘nduja (a spicy Italian pork salami) rather than bacon to the dish. The end result is a chewy, spicy, briny bite, similar to what locals might have once savored at Silvermine years ago, but, I would hazard, even richer, deeper and more flavorful. Robert was impressed.
Chef Freemole has fine-tuned the Tavern’s voice to resonate with the region’s culinary history … and its present. “I think there are some really excellent restaurants up here,” he acknowledged, having cooked (and dined) in food-centric towns like Los Angeles, London, New York and the Hudson Valley.
One local specialty in particular has inspired his Toast and Clams. A creamy clam spread is slathered over Flour Salt Water toast, the sauce flavored with aromatics, garlic, and Calabrian chili, all brightened with a vibrant parsley. My first bite tasted somewhat familiar, but I couldn’t quite place its where or when. Chef Ben later pin-pointed the déjà vu. “It’s my nod to Pepe’s clam pizza,” he explained. “I love that pie.” So do I. But the Tavern’s clam toast is more than a match.
If there’s beef tartare on the menu, it invariably becomes Evelyn’s first choice. GrayBarns’ version features chopped Wagyu Beef and a bit of bison, mixed with capers, shallots, quail egg, and Chile flakes, producing a tangy, slightly smoky mélange that delighted many at the table. Cold raw beef itself exudes a slightly metallic, but rather bland taste. Here, sous chefs Conner Young and Mike Webster masterfully sauce and season the tartare, and the savory steak bits tingle with flavor.
At times, the kitchen garnishes the tartare with borage, when it’s available from the garden alongside the dining terrace. Overlooking the pastoral Silvermine River and Guthrie Pond, the beds also supply Young and Webster with rosemary, thyme, peppers, kale, and peppery nasturtium blossoms.
The robust Tavern Burger became an instant candidate for CTBites’ annual Best Burgers list. What distinguishes this Pat LaFrieda blend of chuck, brisket, and short rib is the inclusion of bone marrow, which adds an elevated buttery flavor to the burger. Many chefs are using bone marrow jus as a dipping sauce for their hamburger, but Freemole has taken the next step, asking the famed butcher to incorporate the marrow directly into the grind. The challenge took a few days of experimentation, but LaFrieda designed a way to marry the marrow into the blend.
Topped with a Hudson Valley triple-cream cheese and enveloped inside a soft sesame seed brioche bun (soon to be baked in-house), the half-pound patty was skillet seared to medium rare perfection: its thick char encasing a rosy interior. We bit in and swooned. That was even before the first fry.
I don’t include sides in the evaluation of hamburgers for our Top Ten list. Too often they serve as tricked out gimmicks. But if I did, the Tavern’s gourmet fries would seal the deal for their burger. Prepping them is an all-day affair, starting at 10 am when the high starched potatoes are brined, then dried before they are finally finished to order in the evening: browned and crisp on the surface, light and creamy within, each salty spear ready to be dredged through sugary homemade catsup and promptly devoured. Tavern fare at its zenith.
Not all Gazpachos are composed of cold chunky tomatoes. For instance, White Gazpacho, a Spanish Classic, is listed on the menu as including “cucumber, almonds and crab.” No tomato. No dairy. Marcie ordered it out of sheer curiosity about the culinary combinations. “White Gazpacho is greater than the sum of its parts,” Chef Ben told us. He uses no bread, but thickens the puree with the almonds and drizzles the surface with the fresh crab meat. Marcie’s verdict after her first spoonful: “Wow, just wow!”
Pan fried and seared, the dry aged 14 ounce strip steak comes paired with a rich, artfully herbed béarnaise and a side of haricot vert. After his first bite of steak and sauce, Bill declared the combination fabulous, then focused all his attention to the plate and spoke no more until his dish was clean.
Freemole ranks strip as the most tender of the flavor cuts and his personal favorite. He also feels any more marbling would compete with the menu’s indulgent Cote de Boeuf for Two, a rib steak served nicely crusted and running with juice, but decidedly decadent.
Janet ordered the night’s special, Rigatoni and Octopus. Freemole chose the pasta’s shape for its namesake ridges, on which his full-bodied ragú could cling. Janet thought the buttery, slow-cooked fresh tomato sauce was “absolutely delicious,” and felt the kitchen’s rendition of toothy, firm pasta has made her question her own preparation of el dente.
The Tavern’s succulent Rotisserie Chicken -- plump, juicy and brandished with crispy, golden-brown skin -- could be the star of the show. Forget mass produced birds for supermarket Rotisserie. The secret to savory chicken is pedigree. Freemole sources his heirloom birds from Green Circle Farms in Pennsylvania, who follow a humane and holistic approach in raising and processing their flocks.
Unlike over cooked sodium saturated supermarket Rotisserie, this chicken is neither brined nor dried for hours under radiant heat. The bird turns on the spit for exactly 37 minutes, timed to precisely crisp the skin and moisten the meat. As the dripping fat tenderizes and flavors the bird, it drains away, reducing fat content and calories. Indeed, the melted fat produces a melt-in-your-mouth meat.
Diners can choose either a half or whole chick.
As the party ended, we all agreed the servers were outstanding. Though working together for only a brief time, their relaxed teamwork, timing, and hospitality were almost flawless.
“We are trying to create a passionate service family who craft unique experiences for each of our guests.” GM Daria Albert explained. “We want every guest to feel at home.”
Indeed, at homey GrayBarns, food, service, and space are executed in the best of taste.
Tavern At GrayBarns 194 Perry Avenue, Norwalk
Dinner Tuesday-Saturday 5pm – 10pm
Brunch and Lunch service – stay tuned.