Scena – Fine Italian Dining in Darien

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Scena Wine Bar & Restaurant in Darien is serving delicious, modern interpretations of Italian cuisine under the direction of Executive Chef Eben Leonard. It is one of three restaurants owned by brothers Vicente and Kleber Siguenza (a fourth is schedule to open in Greenwich later this year) including Cava Wine Bar in New Canaan and 55 Degrees Wine Bar and Restaurant in Fairfield.

Chef Leonard traces his culinary passion to his early childhood in Chatham, New York when he prepared monthly dinner menus for his mother. As a teenager, Chef Leonard met his first mentor, Chef Urs Bieri, at the Elm Court Inn in Massachusetts, when Bieri hired him to work as a “chef” at the age of fifteen, teaching him many aspects of the professional kitchen. His aspiration was further enhanced as a line chef, “I loved the adrenalin, chaos, and speed. I loved creating the plates, making them perfect.”  After attending the New England Culinary Institute, Chef Leonard worked with Todd English at Bonfire in Boston and Olives in New York. In describing choosing his perfect career, he told me, “I was lucky to find something that I loved and was good at so young.  There is a good chance I would be working at a DMV or living as a ski bum out west if I hadn’t gotten that first dishwasher job.”

Chef Leonard joined Scena as its opening chef in 2009 and continues to oversee the menu of delectable antipasti, salads, pizzas, pastas and entrees. The wine list is extensive, comprised primarily of California and Italian choices, with over 200 labels and prices starting at $38. The decor is relaxing, the atmosphere is high energy, and guests can enjoy seasonal al fresco dining. During my visits I enjoyed many of Chef Leonard’s creations.

My favorite of the antipasti choices was the steak tartare accented with shallots and a touch of truffle oil. A quail egg sat atop the tartare, which itself sat in a pool of truffle paste, and served with parmesan crostini and shaved parmesan cheese. The tartare was outstanding with the rich flavors of the beef the focal point with just a hint of the shallot. When combined with the raw quail egg and black truffle paste the three created a luscious textual dish. The meat was ground to a consistency that allowed for a great textural balance.

Another delicious antipasti was the salmon tartare that was served at lunch and included chopped salmon sitting atop a small portion of guacamole. This tartare included cucumber and red pepper and these additions allowed the fresh flavor of the salmon to maintain the focus of the dish while adding a nice texture variation.

For a lighter and more refreshing summer choice I enjoyed the watermelon salad. The dish contained cubes and slices of red and yellow watermelons plus arugula, pistachios, a touch of saba vinaigrette and topped with grated goat cheese.  This was an extremely refreshing dish with the two melons delivering a slight variance of flavor, the pistachios added a little saltiness, the arugula a peppery background and the saba vinegar was a great complement to the sweetness of the melons. This was an incredibly delightful way to start the meal on a hot summer night

I also enjoyed two very different pasta preparations. My favorite of the two was the summer corn ravioli with mushrooms, fava beans, English peas, parmesan shavings and chives. The filling consisted of summer corn, shallots, garlic and charred corn with the addition of cream and a stock created from the corn centers. The fresh mushrooms, fava beans and peas complemented the pasta and added a light sweetness and crunchiness to this delicious dish. The second pasta was a taggliatelle with a Bolognese sauce. The house made taggliatelle was perfectly prepared and the Bolognese had a surprise ingredient, cinnamon. This addition may not be for everyone, but I found that the addition of this ingredient added an enjoyable flavor differential from the other Bolognese sauces in the area.

For entrees, I thoroughly enjoyed the seared scallops with poached lobster, potato gnocchi, heirloom tomatoes, and finished with thin slices of cucumbers and radishes. The U10 scallops were delicious and when I asked the source I was told that one of the owners travels to Hunts Point Market and personally hand selects all of the fish for Scena. They were perfectly seared and the thin slices of the cucumbers and the radishes added a great crunchiness while the heirloom tomatoes added a touch of sweetness. While the lobster added a level of elegance, the scallops worked so perfectly with the other ingredients that I think the dish could easily be served without the lobster.

The other outstanding entrée was the hangar steak with spigarello greens (from Mountain Sweet Berry Farm in Roscoe, N.Y), potato hash, soft egg, balsamic and a red wine sauce. Hangar steaks are one of my favorite cuts of beef and Chef Leonard’s version was delicious, an incredibly creative dinner version of steak and eggs. The large portion of hangar steak was perfectly cooked to medium rare and its deep and rich flavor was perfectly complemented by the spigarello greens, which have a broccoli-type flavor. The potato hash included extra crispy chorizo and corn with a soft egg on top. The steak was marinated in red wine, smoked paprika oil and soy and quickly grilled. I loved every aspect of this dish and enjoyed Chef Leonard’s modified breakfast classic as a delicious dinner entrée.

Overall, Scena Wine Bar & Restaurant is an excellent choice in Darien and I look forward to more visits to enjoy more of Chef Leonard’s delicious creations.

Scena Wine Bar & Restaurant, 1077 Post Rd., Darien, CT 203-662-3226

http://www.scenawinebar.com

 Originally posted by Jeff “Jfood” Schlesinger on www.ctbites.com on August 12, 2012

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Napa & Co. – Geat Food in Stamford

Napa and Company in Stamford has another extraordinary chef, Chef Leonardo Marino, overseeing its award-winning kitchen. Chef Leo is slowly modifying the menu to showcase his commitment of using exceptional ingredients to highlight their natural flavors. Three weeks after assuming Napa’s Executive Chef position, CTbites sat with Chef Leo for this “Behind the Scenes,” review, discussed his passion for food and sampled several of his recently premiered dishes.

Chef Leo’s devotion to cooking started at an early age as he assisted his mother and aunt in the kitchen; they inspired him to pursue a culinary education.  After attending the Culinary Institute of America, his philosophy of accentuating the natural flavors was further influenced in the kitchens of some of America’s greatest chefs. While working as the Lead Sous Chef for Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin, Ripert asked him to relocate to Washington DC to take the reins of Chef de Cuisine at Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert. Chef Leo returned to New York in 2009 and joined David Bouley at both Bouley and as the Chef of Bouley Upstairs. In 2010 he joined Jean George Vongerichten, first as the Executive Sous Chef at his flagship restaurant, Jean George, and subsequently as the Executive Sous Chef at The Mark Restaurant by Jean George. After working with all of these legendary chefs, Chef Leo commented, “My mother and my aunt are two of the best chefs,” but he quickly added, “…in addition to Eric and Jean George.”

The first dish was a delightful tomato gazpacho. Chef Leo’s version began with a mound of baby heirloom tomatoes, Marcona almonds, basil and sliced strawberries, all topped with a mini-grilled cheese. The soup, which was comprised of traditional cucumbers, red peppers with just a touch of diced Serrano chili to give the dish a little spiciness, was then slowly poured into the dish. The bright flavors of the tomatoes were perfectly accented by the cucumbers, red peppers and the Serrano chili; and the mini-grilled cheese was both a delicious and fun addition. I really enjoyed this dish as a light start to the meal for both the crisp combinations of flavors as well as its varying textures.

The second dish was a remarkable salad and my favorite of those that I tasted; heirloom tomatoes, burrata, grilled country bread, white balsamic gelee and green and purple basil. The tomato season started early this year and Chef Leo is taking full advantage of the delectable and diverse varieties that are currently available. No less than five different varieties of heirloom tomatoes were served. In addition, the imported burrata was one of the most delicious and creamy burratas that I have tasted. The white balsamic gelee brought a delightful and interesting flavor to the dish and it was refreshingly new to my palate. Lastly, the grilled bread brought a wonderful crunchy texture. This dish would work perfectly as a light lunch or a delicious start to a dinner.

The next dish was a fried, poached duck egg with crispy romaine lettuce, shaved broad beans, and surrounded by a drizzle of house-made green goddess dressing.  Yes, green goddess dressing. Chef Leo explained his fond memories of the dressing and he thought it would perfectly balance the flavors of the romaine and beans. When the dish was presented, Chef Leo cut into the egg and the yolk gently oozed over the lettuce and created a luscious creaminess. He explained that he first poached the egg, then coated the poached egg with panko, and fried the coated egg to create a crispy exterior and a creamy interior. He also mentioned that he added a surprise ingredient to the egg, a touch of harissa to give just a hint of spiciness to the dish.

The third salad that I enjoyed was the red and white endive salad with Port Reyes blue cheese, balsamic vinaigrette and chives. This simple salad delivered fantastic flavors. The Port Reyes, with its medium pungency cheese complemented the slight bitterness of the endive, and when combined with the deep flavors of the balsamic vinaigrette created a delightful and perfectly balanced salad.

One of Chef Leo’s newly introduced entrées is a saba glazed duck breast with New Zealand spinach, Urban Oaks plums, baby turnips, candy stripe beets, strawberries and chanterelles. He first seared the meat, and then slowly braised the duck before searing for a second time to crisp the skin. The duck meat in Chef Leo’s version was cooked to medium, which he believes produces a more tender product. After tasting this dish I fully agree; the duck meat was tender and full of flavor. The accompaniments to the duck were delicious. The candy stripe beets, one of my favorite varieties, worked extraordinarily well with the sweetness of the plums and strawberries, while the baby turnips and the chanterelles added a wonderful, deep earthy flavor.

Chef Leo saved my favorite dish of the day for last; a pappardelle with wild mushrooms, Parmesan cheese and topped with a light mushroom foam. The pasta was perfectly cooked and then tossed with a sauce comprised of mushroom stock, crème fraiche and a touch of Parmesan Reggiano. The dish included a variety of wild mushrooms including chanterelles and shitakes (morels may be included in the near future). The dish was finished with a bit of foamed mushroom sauce. The earthiness of the mushrooms was delicious. The flavors of each of the numerous mushroom varieties brought a wonderful earthiness to this dish and the foam accentuated the deep mushroom flavors. I would highly recommend this dish to every mushroom enthusiast.

Chef Leo Marino is slowly placing his philosophy of fresh flavors onto the Napa menu. As he stated, “The soul of my mother is in all of my food.” After sampling several of his creations, I am extremely excited about the direction that Chef Leo will take the exquisite food at one of my favorite restaurants in Fairfield County.

Napa and Company – 75 Broad Street – Stamford, CT 06907 – 203-353-3319

www.napaandcompany.com

Originally reviewed by Jeff “jfood” Schlesinger on www.ctbites.com on July 29, 2012

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