Chef Leo Bushey III finds culinary inspiration in unlikely places, like in an accidentally burnt potato.
As the head of the kitchen operations for Bristol's new Doubletree by Hilton Hotel, he oversees upscale gastropub Time Out Sports Bar and its farm-to-table fine dining sister, The Willows. When a pan of potatoes spent too much time in the oven one day, Bushey scooped one of the overdone tubers and tasted it, describing it as "that potato chip in the bag that's burnt, but it's the best one."
"So that inspired bitterness as a flavor profile," he said. "We'll infuse that somewhere in our menu down the road."
Bushey is a familiar face in the Connecticut restaurant industry. With stints at the Hartford Club and the former Acqua Oyster Bar in Vernon, along with his seasonal seafood shack Fay's Place in Bolton, he brings a wealth of experience and creativity to the hotel's new venues.
At Time Out, Bushey and his team elevate the sports bar's menu beyond traditional nachos and other pub grub, focusing instead on farm salads, small plates (crab and Stilton arancini, pale ale-poached mussels, lambic-marinated pork tenderloin tips and vanilla-poached lobster pot-au-feu.) There are the requisite chicken wings, but they're coated in a honey porter orange glaze or done Greek-style, with lemon and oregano and a creamy feta dip.
Half-pound burgers are made from hormone-free certified Angus beef, with sweet potato fries and maple marshmallow dip as an option on the side. Sandwiches, flatbreads and larger plates (stout-marinated hanger steak, lobster and crab mac and cheese, roasted Frenched chicken breast) round out the menu.
And at the adjoining Willows, where guests step away from Time Out's flat-screen TVs and into a bright and inviting vermilion-accented dining room, Bushey and his team concentrate on intricate, artistic plates with carefully sourced ingredients. The chef is a believer in "good-quality, nutritious and safe" food, and selects produce, meats and fish with this in mind: organic options when possible, without genetically modified organisms or growth hormones.
"The Willows [is doing] the farm-to-fork trend," Bushey said. "I took it a step farther, by making credible food that's safe to eat. We're trying to be more conscientious about what we're putting in our bodies…Food is life. That's how we look at it."
Director of food and beverage Aaron O'Connor said he shared the hotel's planned concept with Bushey, and allowed him to execute the vision the way he wanted.
"We said, 'This is your canvas, give us your interpretation of what this is,'" O'Connor said. "This is his interpretation. It's fantastic and it's exceeded anything that we thought it would be."
Bushey's menu features a seafood-heavy list of starters ($9 to $23) including heirloom tomato gazpacho with lump crab, champagne-poached Prince Edward Island mussels, several composed salads and a torchon of Hudson Valley foie gras with moscato gelee, honeycrisp apple fritters and port wine syrup.
Fresh Stonington day boat scallops and braised beef short ribs are the restaurant's two signature entrees – the short ribs taking on a truffle-like presentation, with the meat encased in layers of demi-glace. Other selections include a "deconstructed" lobster ravioli, a 16-ounce ribeye, Australian rack of lamb, a daily fresh catch and a regular vegetarian or vegan offering, constructed daily by the chefs. Entrees range from $21 to $42.
"The artistic presentation of these dishes is second-to-none," O'Connor said. "There's wow factor. It's beautiful food."
Bushey says he considers himself and his team food artists. "Collectively, [we have] everyone's input to own the menu," he said of his staff members, who contribute experience from the kitchens of such culinary stars as Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Tom Colicchio. He encourages them to experiment and share ideas, he said.
And despite more than a quarter-century in the business, "I discovered myself here," Bushey says of his new home. "I'm inspired by my team…we're thinking outside the box, playing with our food."
The experimentation extends to the dessert menu, where a pastry assistant fashioned a coconut panna cotta with a pineapple fruit strip – a take on a "fruit roll-up" with reduced pineapple juice and pulp.
Complementing the fare in both venues: a solid beverage program, with wines by the glass and bottle; specialty cocktails ($9) made with house-infused liquors and fresh muddled fruits and a dozen draft beers. Five of the tap lines are devoted to Connecticut brews; craft beer itself has been so popular that O'Connor is considering dropping Guinness from the draft list, he said.
Special wine and beer dinners and potential dine-and-stay overnight packages are on the list for future offerings, Bushey and O'Connor said. The hotel expects to see a lot of guests on ESPN business and tourists visiting Lake Compounce, but they want to get the word out that the Doubletree's dining options aren't just for out-of-towners.
"Choices are limited [in Bristol,]" O'Connor said. "I think people are excited about this."
"I don't think people understand [yet] that you don't have to stay here to enjoy it," Bushey said. "We have a lot to offer and I want more people to know that."