"We will be open during the storm!" the Black Rose announced repeatedly on its Facebook page throughout the February nor'easter that dropped more than 3 feet of snow in some areas of Connecticut. "Walk, ski, snowmobile, or whatever."
And customers did. As the storm virtually shut down the state, patrons trudged through massive snowbanks to reach the Newington restaurant on Main Street. Despite a skeleton staff, the Black Rose kept its kitchen and bar open Friday through Sunday, welcoming a steady stream of guests trying to overcome cabin fever.
Regulars even pitched in to help, said general manager Scott Meland, one offering to answer the phone and another offering to bus tables. "We did as [many] sales as the previous week as we did with a full staff."
The response was a welcome sight for Meland and owners Piera and Stephen Rosini, who opened the restaurant as Black Rose Tavern in late August and just three months later, overhauled the menu, staff and décor in response to customer feedback. Once the transformation was complete, the restaurant dropped "Tavern" from its name and celebrated a grand reopening in late January.
"We were becoming a tavern with a tavern menu. We don't want that," Meland said. "We want a great restaurant with a great bar and a great private room."
As part of the transition, Meland – a former operations director for Carmen Anthony Restaurant Group – brought in executive chef Jarold Coto, with whom he'd worked at the TGI Friday's chain years earlier. Coto came on board in December and retooled the menu, adding dozens of new appetizers, entrees, sandwiches and burgers to the options.
The menu has touches of inspiration from the Rosinis' home cooking. The "Hobnob Delight" salad is Piera's creation, with mixed field greens, butter-poached pear, dried cranberries, candied walnuts and gorgonzola. Stephen, a former corporate tax accountant, contributed a filet of orange-herb pork entrée: sautéed pork cutlets served with an orange-ginger sauce, white rice and vegetable medley. His take on chicken Parmesan features a sauce with sundried tomatoes and mushrooms.
The Black Rose's unusual chicken-wing flavors – cherry vanilla, chocolate bacon, peanut butter and jelly – also come courtesy of Stephen, who enjoys the experimentation with new recipes. The wings are available as both bone-in and boneless varieties, with customers' choice of sauce.
"Everyone's going to have the hot wing; we just wanted a little something different," Stephen said.
"We usually have to entice our customers to taste [the wings,] but once they taste it, they're hooked," Piera said.
Other best-selling starters ($6.50 to $12) include the fried calamari supreme, with chorizo, jalapenos and lemon aioli; nachos supreme, bacon macaroni balls and "bratwurst sliders" with ground bratwurst patties, peppers, onions and horseradish sauce. An interpretation of chicken and waffles comes on a stick, with maple herb butter.
Entrees, including pastas, steaks, chicken and fish dishes, are priced at $11 to $19. Chicken bruschetta, marinated skirt steak (Coto's specialty) and a "Black Rose" platter with BBQ ribs, fried shrimp and breaded chicken strips are the most popular, Meland said.
Coto and crew added several new sandwiches, wraps and panini ($8 to $11) to the retooled menu, which join a half-dozen fresh-ground, hand-formed burgers. Desserts ($3.50 to $6.5) are made by an in-house pastry chef and displayed prominently on a tray to catch diners' attention; selections include a "tropical carrot cake" with pineapple and coconut, "mile high" four-layer chocolate cake, peanut butter mousse cake and flourless chocolate cake with Irish cream sauce.
The large bar, with a full lineup of martinis and mixed drinks, is about to expand, Meland said. The Black Rose currently offers 15 beers on tap, and will add another 10 in the coming weeks, featuring more Connecticut craft brews.
The Black Rose is the Rosinis' first restaurant in the state, but the couple once owned a small pizza restaurant in New York years ago, they said.
"We'd always talked about going back and doing a restaurant [again] when [our] kids were older," said Stephen. The location of the space along Main St., relatively close to Central Connecticut State University, was exceptionally attractive, he said.
The Rosinis, Meland and Coto have big plans for the coming months, looking forward to St. Patrick's Day specials, the opening of the restaurant's front and back patios (seating 30 apiece) and booking more live entertainment for weekend nights. And as the revamped Black Rose continues to cement its place in the community, they're happy with the response, Meland said. Next to him, Stephen reeted a regular at the bar.
"It really is a family atmosphere here," he said.
>>The Black Rose is at 1076 Main St., in Newington. It's open Monday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Tuesday and Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.; and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Information: 860-372-4445, blackrosect.com.