In the weeks before opening 50 West in late September, brothers-in-law Patrick Miceli and Michael Drouin found themselves at an impasse, searching for the perfect chef to execute the vision for the bistro.
And then Niels van Galen arrived.
The young, classically trained chef was so inspired by the proposed fresh, local and seasonal mission that he designed the entire menu in his head on the ride home after the initial interview.
"It spoke to me…I couldn't stop thinking about it," van Galen said of 50 West's objectives. He emailed the brothers to share his thoughts, and after cooking a demonstration meal of six courses ("on a six-burner stove, in an hour's time," said Miceli) he was hired.
"The three of us, it was the right match, the right chemistry," Miceli said of the arrangement. "Nothing hit home like what he prepared. He's a purist."
It's the same chemistry that's sustained the trio and their staff through the first few months at the Plainville restaurant, which markets itself as "unique but approachable." The menu features locally sourced produce, meats and seafood, rotating through the seasons as ingredients become available.
The space, which formerly housed a pizzeria, has been fully renovated – presenting an intimate setting ideal for nearly every occasion: date night, gatherings with friends, business meetings or casual dining. The restaurant seats about 65 people, with room for another few dozen on a warm-weather patio.
"We wanted to pioneer a concept in central Connecticut in a not-so-saturated market," said Miceli. "We wanted to come to a quaint New England downtown. It's hard to find, in terms of the right space."
This is the first local restaurant project for the brothers-in-law, who also own and operate Waypoint Property Solutions. Drouin has a background in construction and management and formerly worked for the Darden restaurant company; Miceli has a finance background in addition to former work with Smith and Wollensky and previous experience owning and operating an Italian café in California.
Van Galen, who's worked for the Max Restaurant Group in addition to other fine-dining establishments across the state, credits his upbringing in Bethlehem for his interest in seasonal cooking. Born to Dutch parents who embraced the "hunter, gatherer lifestyle" long before it was a culinary trend, van Galen became a proponent of locavorism early in life.
"I love everything that comes as fresh and natural as possible," van Galen said. "Anything that swims in Long Island Sound or runs through Connecticut…we try to keep on our menu."
50 West's lunch and dinner options start with cheese and charcuterie – a New England meat and cheese board for one (or larger for sharing) and panko-crusted, deep-fried goat cheese balls. "Blue plate classics" ($13 to $17) are heartier favorites, like grilled meatloaf with a mushroom demiglace, beef burgundy, tempura-fried fish and chips, filet tips, buttermilk fried chicken and two takes on macaroni and cheese. A "bistro burger" ($13) with bleu cheese, caramelized onions and house-smoked bacon, is a favorite, the owners said.
Appetizers ($9 to $14) are sea-friendly, with fried calamari, New England crab cakes, mussels Meunier, salmon tartare and "shrimp simmer," with large shrimp in a spiced garlic butter and white wine. A "greens and ladles" section ($6 to $14) is heavy on soups for the winter, Miceli said, with chili, Manhattan and New England chowders and a seasonal charred sugar pumpkin soup. Salads will come back into play more as the weather warms.
The "main event" entrées ($18 to $34) feature pan-roasted half-chicken, filet mignon, salmon, pork loin and an 18-ounce bone-in porterhouse, with top sellers including a Montauk bouillabaisse in tomato-saffron broth and seared diver scallops over asparagus risotto with port wine reduction. Desserts are made daily, with recent sweet specials including a cranberry panna cotta.
"It's a good cross-section," Miceli said of the menu. "We sell as many steaks as we sell fish. We run game specials. We're pretty fortunate that everything sells pretty consistently."
The offerings were designed to please anyone, no matter their craving, he said. "The key is not to alienate anyone depending on what their palate is calling for that night. If someone wants an elegant entrée, you can do that, but if someone else wants a burger, you're going to be able to find that. That was the point of a 360-degree menu; we wanted each section to talk to each other."
50 West's beverage program is also near and dear to the owners' hearts, with a hand-picked wine list highlighting mostly selections from California, Washington and Oregon vineyards. "The wine is our real passion," Miceli said. "More or less, every bottle on our list tells some kind of story, whether we've visited the vineyard or met the winemaker."
But they've also put similar energy into the craft beer – six drafts and dozens more bottles, incorporating small-batch and local brews into the mix when possible.
"It was an intelligent risk, but it was embraced," Miceli said. "With 30-something options, they can come back here for quite a while and try something different." 50 West also features monthly wine and beer specials, and the owners also plan upcoming beer, wine and Scotch dinners in 2013.
In their fourth full month of operation, Miceli and Drouin are enjoying the feedback they've gotten from locals, as well as patrons from neighboring towns.