World View Shapes Progressive American Cuisine at The Essex In Centerbrook CT

Hope Simmons
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Say you wanted to eat your way around the globe, but you were short on time and money and didn’t feel like flying. Problem solved. Chef Colt Taylor can take you there through his ever-changing menu. No jet lag or weather delays, and oh, the places your palate will go!

“We want to create more than a restaurant,” Colt explains. “We want to create this experience. Like you can come to four different places, and have four different meals, experiences, moments. We’re on menu 15 in five months. It’s exciting and it keeps things fresh.”

Not big on leaving the comforts of home? His Tuesday night burger night’s got all-American appeal, replete with fries and a craft brew. Wednesday is a popular Italian night. Mexico more your style? Take a trip on Thursday for tacos and tequila. And soon they’ll soon launch bourbon and braises on Fridays.

Then, come Sunday, it’s time for boozy brunch. “It’s eggs Arcadia and red velvet pancakes, all that fun stuff.” What’s eggs Arcadia, you say? “It’s my signature little brunch thing—like merging a Connecticut lobster roll and poached eggs. We put poached eggs over butter-poached lobster on a biscuit with a ginger-citrus hollandaise. It’s delicious!”

There are as many journeys you can take at The Essex as there are days of the week—and then some.  So, though the cuisine is literally all over the map, there’s truly something for everyone here.

Coquito pumpkin

Coquito pumpkin

We started off by way of Puerto Rico with a rich and delicious coquito pumpkin: whiskey, rum and pineapple, with a rim of coconut and habanero. The chewy coconut added a pleasant textural component, with a balanced spiciness from the pepper. As a bonus, it was flavorful, but not overly sweet. While the Sage It Ain’t So (apricot vodka, cranberry vodka, apple, sage) was on the sweeter side, it was oh so easy to drink and enjoy.

Chef Colt Taylor killing it his sexy kitchen.

Chef Colt Taylor killing it his sexy kitchen.

“We’re up for Architectural Digest’s concept of the year,” Colt says proudly. It’s a beautiful space—open and contemporary. In fact, we chose a table with a view of the kitchen—a little dinner with a show—to make the night interesting. “It’s the sexiest kitchen in the world. And we have a very warm hearth room around the fireplace.”

There’s a spacious bar, too, with a magically detailed mural of sea creatures (and a skull and crossbones for good measure), hand-painted by a local artist, none other than Melissa Barbieri, Colt’s mom. And truly a family affair, Colt’s dad is his partner, Michael Hannifan.

Colt started cooking when he was 13 at the original Saybrook Fish House. Yes, you read that right. “That was my first job. I was there the summer the IRS closed it down. Then I went to Dock & Dine. Then I was at Harbor One Marina, tying up boats; it was my summer gig. I was in New York, Miami and L.A.” He got his first Michelin star in New York a year and a half ago. “And I came back here with a very refined palate, one might say. I’m a Le Bernadin kid, Gotham, I was part of the opening team at Babbo. I opened Fontainebleau Miami and was the executive chef of One If By Land, Two If By Sea for four and a half years.”

But before his career took a culinary track, he was headed for med school. “I went to the CIA after I went to college. I was a pre-med, molecular genetics major, University of Vermont. I took my MCATs. I aced them. I was ready to go. And I just—I loved cooking! I wanted to go to culinary school out of high school. My family was like, no.” But he eventually followed his heart and became the French-trained, progressive American chef he is today.

In terms of his menu approach, Colt explains, “When we first opened, everybody was like, you’re very Asian … I’m like, listen, I have a lot of Asian flavor profiles influencing me from Le Bernadin and Gotham, but I’m not Asian, we’re just starting with Asian. We went into this crazy, crazy Indian flavor profile. We went into a crazy Mexican authentic. Then we went to a Peruvian menu. And it’s not like the whole menu takes over that format. We always have a poke on the menu that we mess around with. And I do a true Vietnamese style nuoc cham—a different poke that’s merging Vietnamese and Hawaiian culture. I’m not looking at you like you don’t know this—I’m like, let me show you this. There’s a difference.” And he’ll show you with style and flavor. That’s exactly what he did when we visited. Just take a look at our picture postcards.

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Brown butter-basted sous vide pears with a Riesling gelée, tossed with crispy mustard greens and a “trail mix” of candied/puffed/cooked/raw pine nuts, Marcona almonds, pepitas, hazelnuts and Bayley Hazen blue cheese, finished with a little mustard blossom.

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Fluke crudo with citrus and thyme tops a swirl of apple-pear cider puree, sprinkled with candied Marcona almond brittle.

Ahi tuna poke with nuoc cham and beautiful borage blossoms.

Ahi tuna poke with nuoc cham and beautiful borage blossoms.

We took a side trip to Vietnam with Chef Colt’s rendition of beef tartare, served with freshly toasted squid ink brioche, made in house. This was simply exquisite. If you’re a tartare fan—or a pho fan (I’m both)—this dish is a must-try. And the sweetness of the squid ink brioche was a perfect pairing.

Midway through our dining extravaganza, he pops over to check on us. “How’s everything thus far? Are we hanging in there? This is my casual food!” And the evening was just getting started.

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Rich foie gras terrine with a cinnamon brioche, lime-carbonated pineapple and lychee flavors. Words escape me but something like repeating the word “wow” covers it.

Sous-vide poached salmon with traditional accompaniments.

Sous-vide poached salmon with traditional accompaniments.

“This is probably the most molecular-driven recipe on the menu currently. It’s a perfectly dill and olive oil sous-vide poached salmon. We do sous-vide of fish, sous-vide of braised short ribs, 48 hours, low temperature, steaks, everything. The pear that you had is sous-vide in brown butter and herbs so that the texture is not overcooked, but it has the length of time for the flavor to infuse. A lot of these things are subtle, but aggressive. These are four-day dehydrated cranberries, our lemon pudding, dehydrated capers, red onions, dill béchamel, but done in a different way, so it’s cold along with a dill pudding and an extra virgin aioli underneath. And you also have it up against the salmon belly that’s turned into gravlax.”

House-cured gravlax with   chèvre  , wakame and lemon pudding.

House-cured gravlax with chèvre, wakame and lemon pudding.

And then there’s ramen. “A merging of New England clam chowder meets Koteri-style tonkatsu pork ramen—which is a wonderful thing with a soft egg. It’s got clams in the broth, housemade sodium bicarbonate ramen noodles, but spoon-size, so you don’t have to slurp it [such a bright idea], with slab bacon we braise and cut up. It’s a 72-hour pork stock.” It’s right up there among my three favorite bowls of ramen in Connecticut with bonus points for that Colt Taylor flair that makes it unlike any other.

Steamed buns with crispy pork belly and a homemade hoisin with cucumber, cilantro and mint.

Steamed buns with crispy pork belly and a homemade hoisin with cucumber, cilantro and mint.

Colt explains the pork belly is sauced in a gochujang honey glaze, a Korean chili paste, with peanuts and all different flavors of housemade pickles. The bun itself is very light and fluffy; the pork, tender, a bit spicy from the chili paste, then sweet from the sauce with a crunch from the peanuts. Outstanding. The overarching theme of contrasts in tastes and textures continues to shine through.

And the hits just kept on coming. Fork-tender sous vide short rib in a classic Bourguignon style. Then back to Puerto Rico for a seared NY strip with coconut, lime and plantain chips dusted with spices.

So, maybe, rather than pull off a world tour, we actually had the pleasure of experiencing the variety of different tastes and cultures within our own country as it exists today. “In about 1995 with the advent of TK [Thomas Keller] and The French Laundry, the American cuisine finally started being defined. Well, what is it? It’s not burgers and grilled cheese, let’s be honest. It’s like a melting pot of cultures from around the world. Let me take some potatoes and cod and let me dress it up with Korean or Peruvian or with influences from around the world--the Peruvian, some aji amarillo. Because it’s 2018 and I can get anything I want right now.”

“Let’s put it this way. I believe in local when it makes sense. I believe in being sustainable with an approach to the ocean, the land and everything else. I am not gonna sit here and use endangered fish—everything is fresh and super local in that vein. But I can go to Browne Trading Company and I can get the best—THE BEST—Kona kampachi from Hawaii overnighted to me. It doesn’t take extra gas. It’s what Le Bernadin’s built on. And I believe what we do is we start local and we try to cast that net and we stick within seasonality. We call it regional cuisine, if you will, but not at the expense of the product. So everything we do—I’m all about food made with love.”

With knockout combinations of tastes, textures and cultures from beginning to end, you’re in for something out of the ordinary at The Essex. So, if you’re ready to experience the new American cuisine, keep your mind open and forget your passport—you’ve just gotta get there.

The Essex is located at 30 Main Street in Centerbrook.