The year in Connecticut food and dining was marked by innovative debuts, shocking closings, celebrity appearances, a burgeoning beer scene, well-deserved national recognition for the state's top culinary talent and a surge of imaginative food trucks. Here are some of the tastiest bites of 2015.
Openings And Closings
It was a busy year of introductions and interesting new concepts, ranging from upscale rotisserie chicken to multi-course dessert tastings.
Newington's Rooster Company, which opened in February, focuses on what chef-owner KC Ward called "simple elegance": brined and spit-roasted birds served in whole or half sizes with a variety of sauces. The restaurant in the town's center offers other comfort dishes, such as steaks, risotto, meatballs and bucatini and truffled macaroni and cheese.
West Hartford's Blue Back Square welcomed a World of Beer location in late January, with 50 rotating taps and another 500 local, regional and international beers by the bottle. In April, fast-casual pizzeria Posh Tomato opened across the street, offering ultra-thin, customizable individual pies cooked in less than three minutes.
South Glastonbury's Sayulita, named for the scenic surfing destination north of Puerto Vallarta, sought to elevate Mexican cuisine with sophisticated flavors: lobster tacos with mango and black truffle, Bomster scallops with sweet potato and chorizo risotto, citrus-braised pork belly with jicama slaw.
In Woodstock, Roots Down filled an upscale niche in the state's Quiet Corner, presenting a menu highlighted by contributions from more than a half-dozen eastern Connecticut farms.
Manchester's 21 Oak joined a growing list of vegan and vegetarian dining options, offering an array of scratch-made appetizers, soups, salads, entrees and sides built around seasonal vegetables, nuts and legumes.
"Cake Boss" Buddy Valastro joined the Mohegan Sun "famiglia" this fall, opening his 11th Carlo's Bakery in September. The casino location also boasts the inaugural Sweet Room, a stylish, 30-seat dessert lounge open in the evenings that offers plated desserts, fine cheeses and a guided four-course sampling of sweets for $50.
The year started off with a noteworthy closing in Hartford's State House Square, as Morton's announced that it had served its last meal on New Year's Eve. The national steakhouse chain had also shuttered its Stamford location earlier that year. Across the river, Pond House Grille in Glastonbury also closed its doors that week, but its owners were soon busy revamping a small Park Road space to become West Hartford's Zest280, which opened in March.
Jojo's, which spent about 15 years on Hartford's Pratt Street, closed at the end of January, temporarily leaving the city without an independently owned coffee shop. By September, though, that void had been filled by Sarah's Coffee House on Asylum Street, followed by the first Hartford location of Blue State Coffee at 777 Main St. just a few weeks later. The new shops have each made philanthropy a significant part of their business models.
After 26 years in a historic East Windsor building that dates back to 1784, Jonathan Pasco's closed in May; new owners recently reopened the space as Roberto's Real American Tavern. Another storied space, New Haven's Anchor Bar, closed abruptly in January but will reopen under new management.
Blue Back Square's popular Umi, which brought kaiten-style conveyor belt sushi to Connecticut in 2010, said goodbye almost exactly five years later, on Aug. 31. The year also saw the end of the Carmen Anthony Restaurant Group, which closed its New Haven and Waterbury steakhouses in April and its Woodbury fishhouse in June.
The sudden death of Matthew's Restaurant owner Matthew Popkin in February precipitated the closing of his Unionville eatery, but by August, his former employees Greg Marcuson and Don Henderson had turned the space into Cure, a contemporary farm-to-table pub specializing in house-cured bacon.
The year was big for food trucks in Connecticut, and the mobile eateries that first hit the streets this year are among some of the state's most creative. Former Barcelona chef Roy Riedl introduced Mercado Catering to farmers' markets and beer festivals, earning fans with farm-fresh small plates such as duck-fat fried potatoes, pork-belly sliders with salsa verde and arroz con pollo.
In Stamford, Hapa introduced Fairfield County to its take on Filipino and Pacific Islander cuisine: chicken adobo tacos, grass-fed beef burgers on purple ube buns, shoestring fries with furikake seasoning and gochujang aioli. Influenced by life in Southern California, Madison natives Justin McLaughlin and Justin Bone brought healthy acai bowls to the shoreline in Bowl'd Creations, and Chief Brody's Banh Mi owner Greg Martell decided to specialize in the French-Vietnamese sandwich, elevating it with high-quality braised Berkshire pork and local vegetables.
Zuppardi's, one of greater New Haven's oldest pizzerias, marked its 80th anniversary in 2014 and then brought its pies on the road with the bright-red "Zupp's Truck" in May, run by the great-grandson of original founder Dominic Zuppardi.
The year was also full of sweet dreams. In Shelton, Donut Crazy, which opened in April, sought to redefine the morning treat with cream-stuffed, candy-topped and sugar-glazed specialty flavors. Favorites included the Fat Elvis with Bavarian cream filling, peanut butter, banana slices, candied bacon and chocolate and honey drizzles; the Kandy Krush, with chocolate ganache and caramel drizzle and crushed Kit-Kat bars, and the "Mambo Italiano" cannoli creation with traditional ricotta filling and miniature chocolate chips.
Avon's Taste by Spellbound introduced Connecticut to its "cruffin" — a croissant/muffin hybrid — and expanded across the river, opening a "Goldilocks"-themed shop in South Windsor's Promenade Shops at Evergreen Walk in August.
Middletown's NoRA Cupcake Company capitalized on its growing popularity and opened a second store, bringing its unique, eclectic flavors to West Hartford's Blue Back Square in November. Hardcore Sweet, which got its creative-cupcake start as a food truck in the Waterbury area, opened its second brick-and-mortar shop in Manchester's The Shoppes at Buckland Hills on Nov. 13.
Connecticut's beer scene continued to explode, as several more breweries came online or expanded operations in 2015. New beermakers include Outer Light in Groton, Veracious in Monroe, No Worries in Hamden and Cold Creek in Ellington, and western Connecticut farmhouse brewery Kent Falls began distributing to restaurants and retail shops. Branford's Stony Creek reinvented its brand, opening a 30,000-square-foot brewery and venue with a large tasting room, outdoor decks with a peaceful water view and space reserved for parties, weddings and other special events.
Woodbridge's New England Brewing retained its immense popularity, as guests regularly lined up at the brewery and select bars for its difficult-to-find special releases. In January, officials announced New England would re-brand its Gandhi-Bot double IPA, in response to a lawsuit filed in India that claimed the name dishonored the memory of civil rights leader (and nondrinker) Mahatma Gandhi. On Dec. 16, the brewery announced that the beer would be renamed "G-bot" and released a photo of the redesigned label, depicting a robotic arm reaching up from a heap of scrap metal to flash a peace sign.
In greater Hartford, craft cocktail and spirit fans were introduced to Hartford Flavor Company, creators of the Wild Moon artisanal botanical liqueurs in flavors like lavender, rose and chai, and Waypoint Spirits, which makes vodka and gin in an industrial space on Bloomfield's Woodland Avenue. Visitors to each are now able to sample and purchase spirits on the premises, thanks to recent changes in state law. This legislation also benefited East Hartford's Onyx Moonshine, which opened a 40-seat tasting room in late November.
This year, cocktail aficionados flocked to several new creative establishments. At New Haven's Elm City Social, which opened in July, the expansive menu offers boozy classics; sweet dessert drinks with cream and bourbon; "garden to glass" with fresh seasonal juice; "experimentals," where bartenders showcase their creative ideas; and "Dark Ages Enlightened," freshened-up versions of 1980s-era drinks like rum and Coke and the cosmopolitan.
Hartford's Little River Restoratives, which opened in early November, features a focus on vintage recipes that have stood the test of time, with a few innovative originals by co-owner Chris Parrott. Mohegan Sun's new Sticks & Stones Dipping Grille, which opened in October, showcases dynamic molecular mixology through liquid nitrogen, smoke and centrifuge techniques.
Noteworthy Names And Happenings
Connecticut chefs received plenty of national limelight this year. In February, Tyler Anderson of Millwright's in Simsbury, Bill Taibe of The Whelk and Kawa Ni in Westport and Joel Viehland of Community Table in Washington were nominated as semifinalists for James Beard Foundation awards in the Best Chef: Northeast category. (Viehland later left the Litchfield County restaurant, and his former sous chef Marcell Davidsen took over the executive role.) Later that month, Barcelona Wine Bar's Adam Greenberg took home the crown on Food Network's "Chopped," following in the footsteps of two victorious chef friends and joining what he called a "fraternity of champions."
This summer, Anderson teamed up with fellow restaurateur Jamie McDonald, the "Bear" in Bear's Smokehouse, for an inventive farm dinner featuring a mashup of Millwright's fine dining techniques and McDonald's Kansas City-style barbecue prowess. That turned into "The Cook and the Bear," a Monday-night pop-up series at the Simsbury restaurant, with a fluid menu of smoky, decadent dishes and drink specials.
In August, Salisbury's White Hart Inn found itself in prestigious company as one of Bon Appetit's "America's Best New Restaurants," joining the list of 50 nominees of "spots that killed it this year," according to magazine editors. The honor was noteworthy for a couple of reasons: It came less than six months after the White Hart relaunched its formal dining menu in January, following the inn's reopening under new management in September 2014. It was also one of the only restaurants on the list not in a major city, another point of pride for the destination in bucolic Litchfield County.
Food lovers filled the Connecticut Convention Center in April for the inaugural Savor festival, featuring homegrown culinary talent alongside celebrities Robert Irvine, Mary Ann Esposito, Ming Tsai and Marc Summers. Local gourmands gathered again in October for the revamped Taste of the Nation, which moved to Simsbury's Riverview and changed format to become a sit-down dinner with tableside cooking.
After 12 years at the Nathan Hale Homestead, the organizers of the Coventry Regional Farmers Market announced in February that 2015 would be its final season, disappointing visitors who regularly made the trek on Sunday mornings for the celebration of local food and vibrant programming with weekly themes. Town officials decided to step in and take over the market's operations, and it will return in 2016 as the Coventry Farmers' Market at Hale Homestead, with many of the same vendors.
Last — and least — former UConn student Luke Gatti gets a dishonorable mention for his behavior in October, demanding an order of bacon jalapeño macaroni and cheese and subsequently verbally and physically abusing campus dining services employees when he was denied service. Unfortunately for Gatti, the incident ended in arrest, and a YouTube video of the tirade went viral, racking up millions of views and inspiring spoofs from late-night TV hosts. (And after the video inspired curious cravings, we went to campus to taste the dish for ourselves.)