By Analiese Paik and Elizabeth Keyser
Artisan, the new restaurant in the Delamar in Southport, is an instant success. The outdoor bar and patio are filled with fashionistas making the scene. But from our view at an outdoor dinner table, those who’d come for drinks only were missing out on some great food. Artistan is the creation of restaurateur Rick Wahlstedt (L’Escale in Greenwich, Le Colonial and La Goulue in New York City) and partner Charles Mallory. Wahlstedt knows the ingredients of a successful restaurant. Artisan is beautiful. The theme of craftsmanship is evident in the evocative design. The muted palette combines classic 18th-century Swedish furniture with modern elements like wire string chandeliers. Beautiful murals of monumental flowers by Swedish Jonas Wickman decorate walls in the dining room and Tavern.
Artisan’s food is “seasonally inspired” New England cuisine. To express the craftsmanship theme, executive chef and partner Frederic Kieffer, a native Parisian who was the opening chef at L’Escale in Greenwich and the executive chef at Gaia in Greenwich, uses many local, sustainable ingredients. Keiffer’s food, at its best, also reflects an ingredient-driven simplicity, as we discovered in one of the most surprisingly delicious dishes that we tried at a recent dinner.
It would have been easy to pass over this traditional melon and prosciutto appetizer, but that would have been a mistake. One of the highlights of the evening, the sweet, juicy and highly aromatic bites of melon blanketed with fine sheets of pleasantly salty prosciutto and basil leaf were exquisite with the addition of an aged sweet and sour vinegar from Spain. Made from both the sweet Pedro Ximenez grape and the sweet white Muscat grape, then aged in the manner of a fine sherry wine, this fruity and fragrant vinegar expertly finished the dish without adding any hard edges or dark color to mar the beauty of its soft colors. One member of our group remarked about how the flavors kept unfolding in his mouth.
We started our meal with La Maitresse Sparkling Rosé Brut NV from Provence, France, a dry, sparkling rose with a gentle effervescence and notes of ripe berries and a refreshing finish.
Toasted and split mini brioche buns arrived stuffed with a traditional creamy mix of fresh chunks of steamed lobster, mayonnaise, tarragon and lemon. The meat was delicate and sweet. A seasonal salad of julienned mixed vegetables including carrots, red cabbage, jicama and scallion was simply dressed in mayonnaise and fresh herbs.
Artisan makes excellent use of local ingredients, including seasonal specialties like Stonington’s royal red shrimp. Stonington Reds, as they are fondly called, are famous for their sweet flavor, tender texture and bright red color. To preserve their texture, Chef Kieffer cooks them at a low — below boiling – temperature. To preserve flavor, the chef uses cooking water to rinse the shrimp after deveining. The risotto was perfectly executed – creamy but still slightly chewy in texture – and was a fine flavor canvas for the succulent shrimp and mellow yet distinctive fennel. This dish exemplified Chef Kieffer’s cooking style – laser-like focus on quality, technique, and flavor pairings punctuated with the best seasonal and local ingredients.
Enormous sea scallops were seared to bronze and cooked to tender, glossy perfection, and paired with earthy and meaty Hen-of-the-Woods (aka Maitake) mushrooms, roasted red peppers and hefty English peas. One of the star entrees of the evening, it had a refined and beautiful balance of flavors, colors and textures. The wine steward recommended the Miner Family Simpson Vineyard Viognier 2008 from California’s Napa Valley to pair with our fish. The gentle acidity, rich aromas and concentrated flavors make it a food friendly wine, and an excellent choice for fish.
Tender slices of crispy-skinned duck breast were served au jus with a gorgeous medley of seasonal vegetables including bright green fava beans, diced carrots and green zucchini speckled with fresh herbs and flanked by an apple-rutabaga quenelle. Vignamaggio Chianti Classico 2006 from Tuscany, Italy, a fine recommendation of the wine steward, paired well with this duck dish. Made with Italy’s famous Sangiovese grape, this Chianto Classico has a fine overall balance of rich, dark fruit flavors, velvet soft tannins, and pleasant acidity.
Nobody should leave without trying this outstanding dessert. To call it cheesecake is almost doing it a disservice. Instead, think of it as a close cousin to the traditional French Pots de Crème, where a rich and delicately set custard requires the reinforcement of the pot’s walls to keep it together. The single-serve, lidded pot of luxuriously light and creamy cheesecake is topped with a thin layer of hard caramel then sprinkled with sea salt. What’s the secret to achieving this texture? Chef Kieffer cooks it at such a low temperature, he doesn’t need a water bath.
Macerated strawberries playfully turned upside down circled the plate upon which quenelles of house- made, deeply flavored basil ice cream and strawberry ice cream were artfully poised atop rosemary “biscuits.” Each mouthful was a delightful and refreshing burst of bright, cold fruit, creamy ice cream and crisp, buttery rosemary cookies.
Artisan Restaurant, Tavern & Garden at the Delamar Hotel Southport
275 Old Post Road
Southport, CT 06890
Serving brunch, lunch and dinner. Reservations are strongly recommended.