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Two A's in Connecticut Dining

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 9/03/2016 John Mariani

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The Cottage
256 Post Road East
Westport, CT
At Brian Lewis's new restaurant so much thought has gone into the details, from food to care of the guests, and all without pretension, that it shows just what a modern dining experience can be like without costing a fortune. 2016-03-07-1457355033-4667729-cottagebrian.jpg © Provided by The Huffington Post 2016-03-07-1457355033-4667729-cottagebrian.jpg
I've been singing Lewis's praises since I first sampled his cooking at the Bedford Post Inn in Bedford, N.Y., in 2009, then again at Elm in New Canaan. Lewis has a pedigree you can taste in his food, having worked with masters like Jean-Louis Palladin and Marco Pierre White, for his flavors are clean, intense without being biting, the spices melding well, the textures complementing each other in every dish. You can tell from the first bite that the dish has been thoroughly thought through and worked on till it is what Lewis intended it to be.
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The narrow space and capacity of The Cottage is something of a virtue in that Lewis needs to focus on just 44 people at a seating, and the menu has just the right number of appetizers, main courses and desserts to make it all spin like a top.
Though built from scratch, The Cottage looks cozy and lived in, with vintage factory windows, arched white wood mirrors that open out the space, white wooden walls with dark grey accents, white-stained oak wood floors, and an 18th century mahogany bar. The lighting is excellent throughout, allowing you to see everyone coming and going.
Sad to say, however, the designers neglected to put in any sound-proofing--which these days doesn't have to look like sound-proofing--so from seven o'clock on the room can get very, very loud. Also, given all the money spent on designers, Carrara marble, vintage Litiz Industrial lights, and attempts to make The Cottage look rustic, it seems too cunning an affectation to have the amiable waitresses wear v-neck t-shirts.
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"The menu celebrates cultures of Italy, Spain, France, Japan and, most importantly, our direct Northeast region," says Lewis, and it is indeed modern and eclectic, from wagyu brisket in steamed buns to lobster spaghetti with sea urchin and Calabrian chili, all bearing the bright stamp of Lewis's special creativity.
Sunchoke soup with bacon, onions and black truffles ($19) is a terrific idea, mildly sweet and woodsy. Gorgonzola "Toastie" ($16) is made with wonderfully creamy-sweet not-too-pungent cheese, with brown butter and honey walnut crumble, and that unexpected wagyu brisket comes with kimchi to give it some heat and delicious potato tempura cooked in duck fat ($6 per bun). There is house-made pasta here, too, including superb chestnut-filled agnolotti in a sage brown butter with Robiola cheese fonduta ($14/$24). An octopus salad with pineapple and Benton's ham ($16) had good flavor and texture, though the amount of octopus didn't amount to much.
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Where else but here will you find a white miso-buttered lobster with carrot, ginger and kohlrabi ($36), or a short rib pie with parsnips, potato, carrots, and baby onions ($32)? More surprises: fried rice with sliced duck breast with maitake mushrooms, bok choy and quail eggs ($33).
Desserts ($9) are just shy of the excitement of the savory early courses. But it's hard to quibble over a scrumptious apple and quince tart with spiced red wine and vanilla ice cream, or butterscotch pudding with bananas Foster and caramelized salted pecans.
Lewis has before and has again proven he's one of the best chefs in the Northeast, with a cuisine that is all his own.
The Cottage is open for dinner Tues.-Sun; Brunch Sun. Lunch to begin in the spring.

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124 New Canaan Avenue
Norwalk, CT
If chef-owner Renato Donzelli of Basso Café can catch his breath and come out of the kitchen to greet guests, you will learn in an instant why this small restaurant is so popular and so beloved in the area.

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Passionate about his cooking, the handsome chef hails from Italy's Molise region, but he picked up notes on Spanish food from his grandfather when he lived in the Canary Islands. It is Donzelli's impressive technique and his rigorous attention to ingredients and detail that make his small café such a winning combination of tapas bar and restaurant, lovingly lighted, cozy and highly personalized.
The menu is remarkably long and Donzelli changes it often, because he's always coming up with new ideas for traditional dishes, so that his caldo gallego a hearty Galician country white bean soup with chorizo, becomes a sumptuous first course, served with toasted country bread. House-made, tender gnocchi is lavished with a creamy shiitake mushroom sauce drizzled with white truffle oil ($14), and chorizo is also abundant in a casserole with chickpeas and roasted peppers ($9). Flakey hot empanadas are packed with pulled chicken or beef and vegetable soffrito with a light spicy tomato sauce ($8). Anyone who has the ham and fontina croquettes served with nutty, roasted garlic and a smoked paprika aïoli ($9) will very probably order them again and again.
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Some of his dishes include the incomparable Iberico ham, which can be ordered on its own in silky slices hand cut from a huge leg ($16/$24). Donzelli is expert at keeping the succulence of halibut and the rest of the day's catch (market price), dressing the fish with subtle sauces with just a hint of heat. Entrees come in huge portions, like the two-inch-thick pork chop stuffed with fontina and spinach with polenta squares and roasted grape sauce ($29); fat sea scallops set atop creamy polenta with crisp pancetta and a red grapefruit salad and tangy truffled citrus dressing ($32).
For dessert order the decadently rich tres leches vanilla cake ($9) or anything with ripe berries, like the napoleon with lemon cream ($10).
Norwalk may be a suburb of New York, but Basso Café can compete with the best of its kind in the Big Apple.

Basso Café is open Tues.-Sat. for lunch and dinner; Sun. dinner only.

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