A “Bourbon” Dinner @ Oak + Almond (Norwalk)

ctb_7I was invited to Oak + Almond in Norwalk for its Four Roses Bourbon dinner to sample some of Chef Joseph Italiano’s creative cuisine paired with one of the country’s best bourbons. Working alongside Chef Italiano for this special event was Chef Chris Vacca, who our readers know from serving one of the best burgers in Fairfield County from his food truck, Bounty. Chef Italiano has been at the helm for several months after stints at Bistro B in Westport and Bridgeport and with Chef Pat Pascarella at Bar Sugo.

©jeff “jfood” schlesingerWe began the evening with a wood oven roasted Hudson Valley quail with speck, wild mushrooms, and stewed chickpeas, paired with an Old-Fashioned. The de-boned whole quail was stuffed with a variety of sliced wild mushrooms. The bird sat atop the chickpeas and stewed tomatoes. The quail was juicy and delivered a mild flavor, not gamey. The mushrooms were wonderful, very meaty and earthy and the chickpeas and tomatoes were an interesting addition. The dish offered a variety of flavors and textures but was a little under-seasoned.

ctb_3The second course consisted of whole wheat fettuccine topped with braised rabbit Sugo, chestnuts, grainy mustard, and topped with Pecorino Romano cheese…served with the Oak + Almond cocktail. The pasta was perfectly cooked to al dente, with a great earthy quality. The rabbit was delicious and soft with great flavor. The mustard added a back-note of spice, while the chestnuts complemented the other ingredients with both textural difference and a sweetness. Like the quail, the dish would have benefited from additional seasoning.

ctb_4The entrée included slices of rotisserie wild boar shoulder served with duck fat potatoes, Cipollini onions over a bed of roasted peppers and topped with crispy sunchoke chips. The dish was enhanced with agro dolce and served alongside a glass of Woodsman. The meat was beautifully prepared to medium rare, offered deep flavor and was delicious. The accompaniments were outstanding with the sweet-sour balance of the Cipollini onions and peppers. This dish was perfectly seasoned and exceptional.

ctb_5We completed the meal with a slice of local honey pecan pie with bourbon rosemary ice cream paired with Single Barrel bourbon, a double gold winner at 2014 Denver International Spirits Competition. The pie was spectacular, one of the best pecan pies I have ever tasted. It started with a rich, buttery crust and the filling was sweet, creamy and wonderful. And the pecans were outstanding, delivering both a crunchiness and a wonderful flavor…everything was impeccable. The ice cream added both a creaminess and an offsetting profile with the bourbon and rosemary.

Overall, the evening was filled with great conversation and food. I loved the wild boar and pecan pie. As a bourbon neophyte I was fascinated by the versatility of the spirit. From the intensity of the Single Barrel that was served with the dessert to the Oak + Almond, which reminded me of a Margarita, I was impressed by each round of the drinks. With spring on the horizon, the inviting deck at Oak + Almond is almost ready for guests to enjoy Chef Italiano’s wood oven cuisine.

544 Main Ave – Norwalk, CT – 203.846.4600

Really Liked

  • Wild Boar
  • Pecan Pie


  • Stuffed Quail
  • Fettuccine with Rabbit Sugo

Washington Prime (SONO) 2.0 – Enter Chef Howard McCall Jr.

rsz_ctb (2)Patrons of Washington Prime will find comfort in the cuisine of its new Executive Chef Howard McCall Jr. This unassuming chef is not new to SoNo or the kitchen at Washington Prime; he started in the kitchen at Barcelona twenty years ago and was the opening Sous Chef at Washington Prime last summer. Prior to joining Washington Prime he oversaw the kitchen at Mint restaurant in North Carolina, which influenced his new Southern style cuisine.

CTbites was invited to meet the chef and sample some of his new additions to the menu. Chef Howard exudes a soft personality, allowing his culinary talents to speak. His recent changes to the new menu range from a creative American Soul Rolls to a Braised Lamb Shank, plus modifications of previous favorites. Each maintained the focus on the main ingredient with delightful accompaniments…more akin to Southern comfort food.

Three of the Small Plates were delicious.


The first was the Short Rib. A large, single, boneless rib sat atop a dollop of the braising liquid and the chipotle onion jam, then crowned with two onion rings and finished with micro greens. The slowly braised rib was tender and succulent; and when paired with the spicy onions created a spicy-earthy combination. The onions were soft, but be prepared for a little spiciness from the onion jam, while the sauce was a wonderful and rich offset to the spicy onions. The onion rings were perfectly fried with a crispy exterior while retaining an al dente interior.


Chef Howard took great care in allowing the rich flavors of the prime beef to stand out in the Steak Tartare. The dish included diced prime beef mixed with finely diced shallots, parsley and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. It was served in a swath of truffle vinaigrette, accompanied by a quail egg. The scant inclusion of the shallots was perfect and when combined with the truffle vinaigrette was outstanding. Make a divot in the beef and add the quail egg and combine to create an even richer experience. A sprinkling of Parmesan cheese added a touch of saltiness. This is one of the most delicious tartares in Fairfield County.


Not to be outdone by the tartare, the Mac + Cheese is the creamiest I have tasted in quite some time. Chef Howard chose orecchiette to deliver his four cheese (White Cheddar, Yellow Cheddar, Asiago and American) mixture in each bite. This simple combination created a beautifully balanced taste. The texture was velvety and then the crunchy bacon-breadcrumbs kicked in. The pasta was cooked to a perfect al dente. There were additional bacon bits within the dish. This may be the standard for other Mac + Cheeses in the area.


The last Small Plate I sampled was the American Soul Rolls that combined sausage, broccoli rabe, mashed potatoes served a la egg roll, with a spicy tomato-veal demi-glace dipping sauce. The potatoes were soft and creamy and were complemented by the crispy egg roll skins and a tomato dipping sauce worked well with a crispy potato combination. The spiciness of the sausage was balanced by the smoothness of the potatoes. I could probably enjoy the Soul Rolls accompanied by a beer at the bar but thought there were too many elements competing in the dish.


I also sampled two of the large plates and really enjoyed the Braised Lamb Shank. It was served nestled in polenta, crispy Brussels sprouts and topped with rich gravy and a few onion rings. The large shank was perfectly braised to maximize its tenderness and the Brussels sprouts were fantastic, crispy and sweet. The polenta was creamy and mild…a great canvas for the all of the rich flavors of the dish. And lastly, a few perfectly fried onion rings perched on top to accompany an already great presentation.


The SONO Fried Chicken was an enormous half chicken served with its traditional accompaniments, mashed potato and gravy, plus braised greens. I started with the sides…they were fantastic. The potatoes were creamy, lightly seasoned and the gravy was excellent. The braised greens were outstanding with a sweet syrup and bacon. The two enormous pieces of chicken were disappointing. The ultra-crispy fell off the chicken and cutting the chicken was incredibly difficult. The texture of both the breast and the thigh was too firm for my taste and the entire chicken was under-seasoned.  As much as I loved the sides, the chicken was not to my liking.

Chef Howard’s cuisine is Southern comfort with a modern twist. He has a delicate touch that allows the main ingredient to maintain the focus of the dish with accompaniments that enhance the flavors. I look forward to returning to Washington Prime and enjoy many more of Chef Howard’s new creations on the menu.

Really Liked
– Short Rib
– Steak Tartare
– Mac + Cheese
– Braised Lamb Shank
– Mashed Potato and Gravy, Braised Greens (in SONO Fried Chicken)

Did Not Like
– American Soul Rolls
– SONO Fried Chicken

The Spread (SONO) Burger – Great Spicy Rendition

In the midst of a 10-course dinner with friends at Spread I ordered the “Cheeseburger.” I’ve enjoyed Executive Chef Carlos Baez’s version in the past and wanted to see if there was any update to his interpretation to one of my favorite dishes.

Chef Carlos starts his rendition with an 8-ounce patty of grass fed Kobe beef. He tops the patty with pickles, melted Cheddar cheese with the option of bacon or Jalapeño peppers, with a swath of spicy mayo encased in a sesame seed bun. Since spicy mayo was already included I asked for the bacon but not the peppers.

The meat was outstanding. It was cooked perfectly to my requested medium-rare, and the kitchen was delicate when they formed the patty, it maintained a wonderful loose grind. The flavor was deep and rich from the grass feeding and was juicy, but not overwhelming. The bread and butter pickles added a great sour component and the bacon was perfectly cooked and a smoky-salty balance. The spicy mayo was a little too spicy for me, detracting from the other great flavors, but that is a personal preference. The bun added a nice buttery complement. The fries were excellent, fresh, hand cut with just a touch of salt.

Chef Carlos is hitting it out of the park with his cuisine and the burger was just one great example.

The Spread on Urbanspoon

Heyday (MSP) – Some Great Dishes

A colleague of mine was in town and we decided to visit Heyday. This was my second visit and once again it was a fantastic evening filled with great food and excellent service. Similar to my first visit, there were several spectacular presentations and a couple that fell flat.

The service from start to finish was perfect. It was early on a Monday evening and before we decided on the courses, we were engaged with the server, not only on Heyday’s menu, but other restaurants. She was full of knowledge, offered suggestions, was incredibly friendly and over the course of the meal was spot on in every aspect of the meal.

We decided to split a few dishes. For the “I” course we ordered the Chicken Liver Tart that is served with toasted shallot, onion jam, and pickled vegetables. When it arrived the server also brought a portion of the Chilled Blue Mussels since she recommended it and thought we would really like to try it. The Tart was one of the best renditions I have eaten. The mousse was deep in flavor and paired perfectly with the pickled vegetables and the buttery crust. The mussels were served under a “dome” of frozen yogurt, with pickled cucumber, and dill, and unfortunately I disagree with the server. I did not like this dish. The scant four mussels were the epitome of a needle in a haystack in this over-constructed presentation. The tanginess of the yogurt plus the frozen gel overwhelmed the mussels.

In “II” we ordered the Poached Bone-in Skate with black truffle, salsify, and hazelnut and Rabbit Royale grilled leg, ham, carrots. The skate was over the top fantastic, moist, flavorful and worked great with the various textures and flavors of all of the toppings. It is served “bone-in” and takes no effort in removing the meat, just scrape along the bone; it is well worth the minimal effort. The rabbit was not as expected, but was very good. The “leg” was actually the meat from the leg that was removed and re-constituted into two small cylinders; one was encased in smoked meat. The flavor was deep and rich, and worked well with the accompaniments.

The “III” selection brought two outstanding dishes to the table. The Duck Breast is served with endive, pumpkin, and granola and consisted of two small sections of meat. They were very different in texture. One of the pieces was incredibly chewy and tough and the other was delightfully tender. They were both perfectly cooked to maintain a deep richness and the accompanying vegetables and textures were wonderful. The hit of the evening was the Spiced Braised Lamb, served with almond-potato puree, and a grilled green onion. It is spiced, not spicy, and the lamb was fantastic, great flavor, moist, tender and the almond-potato puree was a perfect complement. The single green onion delivered a mild pickled flavor and a wonderful crunchiness.

How can you resist a dessert called “Fifty Shades of Hay”? This is as close as I will get to either the book or the movie. It was 50 shades of disappointment. A scoop of ice cream that included soaking hay in the cream (yes there is a bale of hay in the basement) is served with meringue, frozen grapefruit and an array of crumbled items. The dark colored meringue was the best part. If you take a spoonful of the various items along with a little scoop of the ice cream it is not bad, but this is an overly complex textural dessert versus a flavorful dessert. It indicates the kitchen is versed in various techniques, but it fell flat as a great ending to a great meal.

Sometimes the technique is justified when the end product is exceptional. For many dishes it worked perfectly, but for others it did not. I cannot wait to return to Heyday and sample some of the chefs’ other creative cuisine.

Heyday on Urbanspoon

A Great Meal at Gemma (Dallas)

A couple of colleagues in Dallas recommended Gemma as a new, hot restaurant serving great cuisine. On my recent trip, the three of us grabbed a reservation and headed to 2323 North Henderson to see if the food equaled the hype. The restaurant is located in a strip mall in a gentrifying neighborhood, but when you enter the single dining room with a long bar along the left wall, the interior is warm and light, filled with blues, whites and chandeliers dangling by nautical ropes from the ceiling, you are transported to a more relaxed environment.

The server was outstanding from our first interaction until we left over two hours later. He gave a brief overview of the philosophy with all food sourced as local as possible and if not available, California. The owners, Allison Yoder and Stephen Rogers returned to Rogers’ home town of Dallas from the Napa Valley where Rogers was the Executive Chef at PRESS. He now oversees Gemma’s kitchen, while Yoder handles the front of the house. And if our experience is any indication, both are doing a fantastic job.

IMG_0161As a small group of foodies, we wanted to taste as many items as possible so we decided to order three appetizers to share. The first was the ROASTED BABY ARTICHOKES, which were topped with a poached farm egg, a Provençal vinaigrette and accompanied by wild arugula. The artichoke sections were soft, sweet with just a touch of earthiness from the roast, while the poached egg brought a creaminess to the presentation. The highlight was the chef’s variation of a traditional Provençal vinaigrette…he included capers for additional tang and saltiness. The wild arugula added a peppery component.

IMG_0159The CRISPY VEAL SWEETBREADS were served with frisée and encircled with whole grain mustard. Three large pieces were perfectly sautéed to deliver the described crispy exterior and the dense texture of the interior. The mustard was a delightful complement to the sweetbreads and the frisée lightened the dish with a clean crispiness.

IMG_0160The third appetizer was a half-order of the RICOTTA CAVATELLI. The restaurant recently changed the meat from wild boar to braised lamb. The house-made cavatelli was cooked to al dente and when paired with the richness of the meat was fantastic, and included a bit of grated cheese atop the pasta that added just a bit of saltiness.

IMG_0162For my entrée I ordered the BRAISED VEAL CHEEKS. Accompanying the cheeks in the cast iron skillet were Tokyo turnips, baby carrots, Cipollini onions, bacon, black pepper spätzle. This dish was outstanding. The cheeks were braised until they just held together, incredibly tender and rich, while the texture was soft and succulent. The cheeks were accompanied by amazing vegetables…my favorite were the Cipollini onions, with a pungency sweetness that complemented the beef. The carrots and turnips both added more crunch and additional sweetness. All of these ingredients sat atop crispy spätzle, which was light and delicious. I was not a fan of the bacon, its saltiness and smokiness were overwhelming harsh to the other ingredients.

We ordered two sides to share. The first was the MAITAKE MUSHROOM that were seasoned with shallot, garlic, and thyme. These were not your ordinary sautéed mushrooms. Several stems of these soft and mild maitake mushrooms danced on the palate, offering just a touch of earthiness. On the other hand the KENNEBEC FRENCH FRIES were ordinary and somewhat disappointing. They were basic French fries.

The kitchen was not finished with tantalizing our palates. Desserts brought another round of brilliant dishes. My favorite was the APPLE TART with toasted pecan butter, apple cider caramel, and a little butter pecan ice cream. The tart began with an ultra-buttery dough, filled with perfectly baked apples and then the caramel and ice cream added a wonderful level of sweetness. Close behind the tart was a delicious BASQUE CAKE, which was served with Meyer lemon cream, and a frozen citrus soufflé. The citrusy combinations started with the moist and luscious cake and finished with the cream and soufflé. The last dessert was the CHOCOLATE CARAMEL PINENUT TART, served with toasted marshmallows and a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. This dish suffered from sitting next to the other impeccable desserts. There were too many components that fought with each other and did not present a harmonious combination.

Overall, Gemma is serving outstanding and creative cuisine in a warm and inviting setting. This is definitely worth a return visit.

Apricot Bar & Grill (Norwalk) – Pretty Basic Burger

IMG_0165Apricot Bar and Grill recently opened on in Norwalk next to Fat Cat Pizza. The building has an interesting and storied history with numerous bars and several adventure-based occupants.

IMG_0163With its narrow and deep interior, the current owners divided the space into three sections. The front is a “lounge” with a sofa in front of a fireplace place two wing chairs. The mid-section houses the copper-topped bar with 10 bar stools, two HDTVs, a selection of 12 basic bottled beers, 12 smaller brewery bottled beers and five beers on tap. The drafts currently include Samuel Adams Winter Lager, Half Full Brewery, Long Trail Ale, Yuengling Lager and Miller Lite. The rear offers a more traditional setting with table cloth covered tables for thirty-nine guests, plus four booths.

AP 1For my Sunday venture I ordered the HOUSE BURGER, an 8oz. patty of Certified Black Angus Burger, American cheese, and lettuce & tomato, served on a brioche roll. I requested bacon and was offered either regular or sweet potato fries, I chose the former.

©jeff “jfood” schlesingerWhen the burger arrived it looked fairly ordinary. There was a little juice from the patty seeping into the bottom bun, the cheese was half-melted and a thin tomato and iceberg lettuce sat on the cheese. The fries looked like they were plopped out of a plastic bag into a fryer and dumped on the plate. I cut the burger in half and I have to admit it was prepared perfectly to medium-rare. I tasted the meat, it had decent flavor, was medium compressed and maintained the grind of the meat. The bacon was nicely cooked to deliver just a touch of saltiness but was very basic. The tomato and lettuce were ordinary and the cheese was nothing special. The “brioche” was a more a grocery store bag bun. The kitchen did butter and griddle the bun for a nice buttery goodness with a good crunch. Other than the meat this was basic in all other aspects. The ketchup was also disappointing. It was Sysco’s “House Recipe” brand. This was an immediate turn-off, and the taste was more vinegary than Heinz, which is my preference.

Ap 3Overall this is an assembly of basic ingredients. The kitchen did an excellent job in preparing the patty and toasting the bun. But their hands were tied from the ingredients and they did the best they could.

7 Wall St Norwalk CT 06850
(203) 831-0399

Apricot Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Mediterraneo (Norwalk) – A Culinary Tour of Southern Europe

Mediterraneo, a ‘destination restaurant’ in the Hotel Zero Degrees on Main Street in Norwalk is a beautiful backdrop for Executive Chef Albert DeAngelis’ culinary tour of the Mediterranean. The aquatic inspired dining room features a large bar area to the left, with several high top tables to augment the bar seating, and to the right is the main dining room. With hardwood floors, white chairs and a large nautical flag painting along the far right wall, the dining area presents a clean and airy feel. The highlight of the room is the floor to ceiling glass wall that overlooks the panoramic, million-dollar waterfall view on the river. From a magnificent French Braised beef “Bourguignon” to a mild Tuscan Prosciutto wrapped rabbit loin to an outstanding Wild black sea bass, the menu at Mediterraneo offers wide varieties of clean flavors and combinations. Mediterraneo is one of five local restaurants owned by the Z Hospitality Group.

DSC_0094Chef Albert joined Z Hospitality Group as Executive Chef in 1989 and is the creative vision behind the group’s five Mediterranean-style bistros. By the time he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1986, he was already a veteran of the kitchen. His tenure began at the age of 16 and his career included stints at Tropica, Chez Josephine, and Taliesin in Manhattan as well as at Hotel Le Goyen and the two-star Michelin restaurant Gérard Besson in France. Z Hospitality recently invited CTbites to sample Chef Albert’s new menu at Mediterraneo.

burrata_2The chef prepared a wide variety of appetizers, entrées and desserts. My favorite appetizer was the Maple Brook Farms Burrata served with roasted grapes and chestnuts sitting atop slices of grilled country bread. The Burrata was halved to expose its creamy interior and was delicious with the sweetness of the roasted grapes. The chestnuts added a wonderful nuttiness to the dish and just a hint of saltiness.

bean_soup_1The White Bean Soup included chunks of duck confit and savoy cabbage, served with two slices of toasted rosemary crostino. The al dente beans retained their bite and was accentuated with the deep, richness of the moist and tender duck. The savoy cabbage offered a touch of crunchiness.

egg_1The Hazelnut Crusted Egg was accompanied by a mini-tower of crispy pork belly topped with thinly sliced pickled onions and a few sections of roasted cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. The pork belly was the highlight; it was moist and the slivers of pickled onions were a fantastic complement to the pork. The Brussels sprouts and cauliflower brought an earthiness and a crunchy component.

Octopus1The Charred Spanish Octopus was served with shaved fennel, Taggiasca olives, blood orange segments, and drizzled with sherry vinegar. The four, small sections of the octopus were a little tough in texture and slightly under-seasoned. The orange and olives were a good additions but the fennel lacked flavor.

kale_2The Grilled Kale Sprout Salad paired Bosc pear, roasted pecans and Manchego cheese with a date vinegar. There was a slight sweetness to the pears and the Manchego Cheese was delightful with its subtle nuttiness. As much as I liked the taste of the kale sprouts, it was overcooked and overdressed.

beef_1My favorite dish of the entire visit was the Braised Beef “Bourguignon” served with roasted vegetables, cremini mushroom caps over crispy spätzle. It was delicious and may be the best Bourguignon I have ever tasted. The dish included three, boneless short rib sections, braised in red wine and served with carrots, crisped Brussels sprouts, cremini mushrooms and served over crispy spätzle. This deep, rich combination of the ingredients was superb. The beef was soft and tender, absorbed the full body of the wine and was perfectly offset by the sweet carrots. The mushrooms brought a touch of earthiness and the spätzle added a light crispiness to the dish.

bass_1Another outstanding entrée was the Wild Black Sea Bass, served atop a potato and Brussels sprouts hash, bacon, all nestled in a pool of a reduced balsamic / garlic sauce. The two large fillets were flawlessly prepared, with ultra-crispy skin while maintaining a moist interior. The hash was delicious and the smoky-salty bacon was fantastic. The sauce was phenomenal; rich, flavorful and beautifully complemented the other ingredients.

duck_1The Prosciutto Wrapped Rabbit Loin was served atop white beans, Brussels sprouts in a pool of rosemary au jus. The saddle of Rabbit was wonderfully moist and tender and the prosciutto delivered a slightly crisped and salty exterior. The beans were served al dente and the Brussels sprouts conveyed a bit of earthy qualities. The rabbit jus was finished with a bit of garlic and rosemary.

scallops_1The Pan Roasted Natural Sea Scallops were accompanied with “parsnip three ways,” a black truffle tapenade with a touch of baby red mustard. The scallops were perfectly prepared, seared on both sides while maintaining a moist interior. There were several sweet components to the dish with the scallops and the parsnips which were balanced by the earthy black truffle. The three creative parsnip interpretations included soft roasted parsnips to crunchy parsnip “ribbons.”

pork_ravioli_1Of the two raviolis, I really liked the Braised Pork and Lentil Ravioli which was served with dollops of carrot purée, shredded Pecorino cheese, and cracked pepper. The pasta was thin and delightful. The pork filling was rich in flavor and the cracked pepper added a little spiciness. The carrot purée was a delicious complement to the richness of the pork. I was not as fond of the Scallop and Roasted Cauliflower Ravioli, which was served with fresh thyme butter and toasted almonds. The texture of the scallop filling was more a mousseline, which was slightly off-putting.

tiramisu_1We enjoyed three desserts. The Tiramisu was accompanied by dollops of chocolate and crème Anglaise. The luscious texture of the cake and creams were lightly accented with the liquor in the tiramisu. The second dessert was a Tuscan Boule Bread Pudding with a caramel sauce. This version was outstanding but I found it a little dense and heavy. The last dessert was a Chocolate Molten Cake, served with pistachio gelato. Mediterraneo’s version is a mild chocolate, with the interior oozing on the plate and complemented by a mild pistachio gelato and the caramelized banana slices.

chocolate_cake_1Overall, the new menu at Mediterraneo includes some exceptional choices. With five restaurants stretching from Rye to Westport that include Aurora (Rye), Mediterraneo and Terra (Greenwich), Sole (New Canaan), Aqua (Westport) and Mediterraneo (Norwalk) Z Hospitality Group and Executive Chef Albert DeAngelis are delivering the cuisines of southern Europe.

353 Main Avenue – Norwalk, CT – 203-229-0000

Really Liked

-Maple Brook Farms Burrata ($14)
-Braised Pork and Lentil Ravioli ($17)
-Wild Black Sea Bass ($28)
-Braised Beef “Bourguignon” ($26)


-White Bean and Savoy Cabbage Soup ($10)
-Hazelnut Crusted Egg – Crispy Fresh Bacon ($14)
-Pan Roasted Natural Sea Scallops ($28)
-Prosciutto Wrapped Rabbit Loin ($28)
-Bread Pudding with Caramel Sauce and Whipped Cream
-Molten Chocolate Cake with Pistachio Gelato

Not Fond Of

-Charred Spanish Octopus ($15)
-Grilled Kale Sprout Salad ($12)
-Scallop and Roasted Cauliflower Ravioli ($21)