When Kim Dziubinski first laid the plans for her farm-to-fork restaurant in Branford, one person in her life was a little harder to impress with the news – her 98-year-old grandmother.
"She said, 'You know, Kim, what you're doing, it's nothing new'," Dziubinski said. "And I said, 'I know, Grandma. We're trying to bring it back to basics.'"
Dziubinski's Seagrass Grill, in the Indian Neck section of the shoreline town, has a mission her grandmother would recognize from "back in the day." The 50-seat restaurant serves a well-edited and constantly changing menu, with the freshest ingredients found locally.
This is the first restaurant for Dziubinski, a career chef with culinary training from Johnson & Wales University. After spending 15 years living in Westchester, N.Y., she and her family returned to her hometown of Branford to open the eatery in April. She had been renovating the building while commuting from New York, and finally settled in town just three days before the restaurant opened in April.
"I don't even care," she said of the hectic process. "I'm so happy we're back in Connecticut; it's the best thing."
Dziubinski describes Seagrass Grill as a laid-back neighborhood spot, with a relaxed atmosphere and fresh, flavorful food. The 50-seat space is painted in soothing shades of sage and sand, evoking the beach and marshland feel of the restaurant's natural surroundings. Seagrass' design was a team effort, Dziubinski said, with work by a local wood artist and painter and donated prints from a local photographer.
The daily menu is seasonal, and dependent on the best products available, Dziubinski said. But the menu frequently features a grass-fed beef option (varying cuts of steak; burgers); a farm-raised, free-range chicken dish; sustainable fish and seafood and a vegetarian entrée.
Recent menus have included Stonington scallops, seared and served with house-made pasta; swordfish with citrus glaze and tomato basil relish; braised chicken leg with Italian sausage and spaghetti squash with wilted Swiss chard and white beans. Entrees range from $18 to $28; appetizers and desserts are priced at $7 to $12 and cocktails are $8 to $12.
Starters include a daily soup (such as a late-summer corn chowder with basil); local Branford clams steamed in a light herb white wine broth and grass-fed beef sliders on steamed buns. A recent offering of "yummy peppers" stuffed with black-eyed peas originated from a visit to one of the restaurant's suppliers, Ceccarelli Farms of Northford. The owner, Nelson Ceccarelli, urged Dziubinski to sample the small, sweet orange peppers so she could understand the moniker, she said.
The same farm grows tiger tomatoes, yellow-striped red fruit that Dziubinski recently used as a vessel for basil vodka shots, she said. Inspired by an idea of Ceccarelli's, she hollowed the tomatoes, filled them with the spirit and floated fresh basil leaves on top.
She enjoys this kind of interaction with her local vendors, she said. "One of the best parts of my day is visiting the farms. I learn so much from them."
Sunday brunch is served weekly, with selections like frittatas, egg sandwiches, French toast and pancakes and savory lunch/dinner items. And the focus on fresh extends to the desserts, with housemade sweets like chocolate mousse cake, raspberry crème brulee and herb polenta cake. Chemex coffee, specially brewed, serves four guests.
At the bar, juices are squeezed fresh daily for cocktails, including the popular Seagrass Breeze (organic cucumber vodka, Cocchi Americano, fresh lime and grapefruit and floated cucumber); and the fresh, local organic hard lemonade with Westford Hill Distillers' Rime vodka. Other local products on the bar include Branford-area beer (Stony Creek, Thimble Islands), Peel liqueurs and flavored eau de vie, also from the Westford Hill line. Happy hour, Tuesday through Friday, features discounted drinks and $5 small plates.
As part of the restaurant's mission, Dziubinski is also concerned about being environmentally friendly – minimizing waste, working toward becoming 100 percent LEED-certified and offering a 10 percent discount to diners who walk or ride a bicycle to the restaurant.
Until recently, Seagrass automatically served salad and housemade popovers with Thimble Island coffee stout reduction as part of every entrée, but Dziubinski quickly realized that too much waste was coming back to the kitchen. She amended the menu to make the items available upon request – a decision that wasn't entirely popular, she said, but fit with the restaurant's eco-friendly objective.
And though Branford has said goodbye to most of its summer visitors, Dziubinski is busy preparing for the coming fall and winter with new cocktails and seasonal dinner specials, and hopes to extend the restaurant's patio season with a heat lamp. She's hoping to maintain the sense of community that has sustained her restaurant through its first five months.
"We're really lucky," she said. "This community is so supportive. They want to see you succeed. They want a place to go [and hang out]…We couldn't have done it without them."
>>Seagrass Grill is at 3 Linden Ave., in Branford. It's open Tuesday and Wednesday from 4 to 9 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 4 to 9:30 p.m. and Sunday for brunch 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; then dinner from 4 to 8 p.m. Information: 203-315-3225 and seagrassgrillct.com.
>>Dozens of Connecticut restaurants, schools, facilities, wineries and other vendors are participating in the state's annual Farm to Chef Week, continuing through Sept. 21. Each venue will prepare special menus featuring farm-fresh Connecticut produce and ingredients. For a list of participating venues, and for more on the Farm-to-Chef program, visit ctfarmtochef.com.