Connecticut’s dining scene enjoyed a lively year, punctuated by anticipated openings, unexpected closings, increased national spotlight for chefs and restaurants and innovative trends.
From liquid nitrogen ice cream and doughnut-chicken kebabs to late-night culinary competitions and a local connection to “Top Chef,” here are some of the 2017 highlights:
Few restaurant groups were busier than Bear’s. Once Jamie and Cheryl McDonald moved their Hartford Bear’s Smokehouse location from Arch Street to its current flagship space on Front Street, they transformed the vacant restaurant into The Blind Pig, replacing the smokers with a Marra Forni pizza oven. The trendy wood-fired pizzeria, which opened in January, was a new concept for the barbecue masters, but the toppings were familiar: Bear's Kansas City-style meats: brisket, burnt ends, chopped pork and "moink balls" (smoked meatballs wrapped in bacon).
Five months later, Bear’s smoked meats found their way into tortillas, empanadas, tamales and pupusas at the new Chango Rosa, with a menu of Latin comfort foods and a full bar specializing in tequila and rum drinks. The restaurant filled the space at Hartford’s Union Station left behind when Hot Tomato’s closed in January, with décor centered on bright, splashy graffiti.
In mid-July, Jamie McDonald partnered with Tyler Anderson and AJ Aurrichio of Millwright’s to open The Cook and the Bear, a collaboration restaurant featuring barbecue-inspired dishes with a fine-dining touch. He also found time to help hurricane victims in Florida as part of Operation BBQ.
Other 2017 openings came from established restaurant groups introducing new concepts to the market. Butchers & Bakers, by the Locals 8 team behind b Restaurants (Plan B Burger Bar), opened in early April at The Exchange in Farmington, featuring a menu of new American-style fare with fresh ingredients. Zohara Mediterranean Kitchen, from the DORO Restaurant Group (Treva, Avert, Artisanal Burger), opened in May with food inspired by the flavors of Mediterranean countries: vegetables, grains, fish and lean meats. Carbone’s added to its family, with Carbone’s Prime in Rocky Hill joining its venerable Carbone’s Ristorante in Hartford and middle sibling Carbone’s Kitchen in Bloomfield.
The team behind Spicy Green Bean in Glastonbury and the summertime favorite Shad Row in Rocky Hill opened another seasonal restaurant: Goats n’Roses, an “edgy eatery” at the Farm at Carter Hill in Marlborough, itself a family-friendly destination with animals roaming the grounds. In Middletown, the Krust team opened Osa with executive chef Matt Wick, featuring locally inspired small plates and down in Mystic, Dan Meiser and James Wayman of Oyster Club and Engine Room debuted Grass & Bone, a hybrid butcher shop and counter service restaurant offering cuts of locally sourced meats alongside sandwiches, salads, rotisserie chicken and beer and wine.
Vito’s Restaurant Group, which closed its 20-year-old Vito’s By The Park in November 2016, re-introduced the restaurant as V’s Trattoria in May, in a new Hartford location with a simple, seasonal Italian menu.
In June, Heather and Roy Riedl of Mercado Food Truck turned their attention to chicken, opening their first brick-and-mortar, El Pollo Guapo, in Wethersfield. The storefront offers a variety of carryout options, including rotisserie chicken, fresh sides, salads, sandwiches and grain bowls, with quick counter service.
Hartford County hotel dining saw the debut of Artisan at the Delamar Hotel in West Hartford in September and the opening (and closing) of Harlan Brasserie at the revamped Goodwin Hotel, which shuttered in November after about six months in business. A new operator will take over the restaurant in early 2018, said Goodwin partners.
The Essex in Essex’s Centerbrook section joined the shoreline dining scene in June, as chef-owner Colt Taylor and his father, Michael Hannifan, transformed a Tudor-style mansion previously used for office space into a high-energy, dynamic restaurant featuring a full open kitchen.
Other businesses underwent drastic changes, like Max Downtown in Hartford, which closed for 10 weeks between July and September and reopened after a full-scale renovation. After running into a copyright concern with its moniker, the chicken-focused Yardbird & Co. food truck changed its name and branding to Craftbird.
The year was full of noteworthy closings as well. Hartford lost Hot Tomato’s in January (replaced in June by Chango Rosa) and Nixs on Front Street in November. In West Hartford, Besito in Blue Back Square closed in June, and longtime Farmington destination Apricots shuttered suddenly in October.
On Hartford’s Capitol Avenue, Little River Restoratives owners Patrick Miceli and Chris Parrott experimented with ramen and Asian small plates at Bob Ramen, which opened in December 2016 next door to their cocktail bar. The noodle shop enjoyed an enthusiastic early response, enough where Miceli transformed his 50 West in Plainville into a larger Bob Ramen with a full bar.
By May, Miceli made the decision to bring back the original name and concept, introducing a revamped 50 West after Memorial Day weekend. Bob Ramen also disappeared in Hartford, replaced quickly in mid-June by an outpost of Newington’s popular GoldBurgers. But the burger joint lasted less than six months, closing its doors in early December – just one week after GoldBurgers’ Matt Crowley and Tim Marotto opened 5 & Dime Canteen on Main Street in Newington.
Prasad Chirnomula closed the majority of his restaurants, including popular New Haven spots Thali, Thali Too and Oaxaca Kitchen, between late September and late October. His New Canaan eatery, INDIA, closed in early December. INDIA in West Hartford, which opened in Blue Back Square in December 2016, remains. Jonathan Rapp, known for Chester’s River Tavern and OTTO Pizza, closed Centerbrook’s Wright’s Bar and Wood-fired Grill in November, saying he would focus efforts on the other two restaurants. Wright’s opened in May 2016.
After seven years in Litchfield County, Community Table in Washington closed in May, despite receiving national press and accolades for its dedication to innovative local cuisine — including multiple James Beard Award nominations.
Connecticut screamed for unusual ice cream in 2017. In June, Hartford County was introduced to Fairfield County-based Milkcraft — part ice cream parlor, part nightclub and part science lab — which opened on Farmington Avenue in West Hartford Center. At peak hours, more than a dozen employees bustle behind the counter, making fresh bubble-textured waffle cones and whipping made-to-order treats in stand mixers among chilly clouds of liquid nitrogen.
Trendy Thai rolled ice cream also spun into the state featuring frozen treats crafted to order. Liquid ice cream bases and mix-in ingredients are quickly mixed, frozen and spread into thin sheets on an ice pan and scraped into tight coils, then topped with anything from fruit to candy to Japanese snacks.
Over the summer, bars and even wineries experimented with shaved ice, slushie machines and popsicle molds, remixing nostalgic treats into cocktails. Several restaurants presented liquored-up snow cones, slushie machines filled with wine and rum, and ice pops that played nicely with bubbly.
Hartford Baking Company opened its second outpost, introducing a Farmington Avenue location in March in addition to its original on New Park Avenue. The new location features the European-style breads, coffee, pastries and sandwiches for which the brand has become known, but with expanded offerings like avocado toast, bagels and lox and grain bowls.
NoRA Cupcake Company announced in December that it would close its store on Memorial Road in Blue Back Square by the end of 2017, but creative specialty doughnuts aren’t far behind. Donut Crazy plans to open on Farmington Avenue in West Hartford in the spring.
Within city limits, Hartford welcomed specialty coffee shops Story and Soil, which opened on Capitol Avenue in late July, and Spectra Wired, a café and lounge, which debuted in Constitution Plaza in September.
Connecticut Earns More National Recognition
In his first appearance on Bravo’s “Top Chef” on Dec. 7, Tyler Anderson of Millwright’s and The Cook and the Bear introduced himself as a restaurant owner from Simsbury, “which isn’t exactly known as the culinary hotbed of the United States.” While that may be true, it was a big year for Connecticut-based chefs in terms of national recognition and television appearances.
Hardcore Sweet Cupcakes in the Oakville section of Watertown competed on an episode of the Cooking Channel’s “Sugar Showdown,” and Adam Young, the owner of Sift Bake Shop in Mystic, battled on a season of Food Network’s "Spring Baking Championship" in March.
Before leaving in the spring to tape the 15th season of “Top Chef” in Colorado, Anderson received a nod from the James Beard Foundation in February as a semifinalist in the Best Chef: Northeast category. His Simsbury restaurant neighbor, Jeffrey Lizotte of Present Company, was also on the list of nominees.
Van Hurd of Taino Smokehouse, a chef from Texas who settled in Connecticut after his first appearance on Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen” in 2009, returned to Gordon Ramsay’s tense, demanding competition reality show in September as an “all-star.” Heather and Roy Riedl’s Mercado Food Truck was featured on CBS’s “Undercover Boss” in May.
Connecticut retained its reputation as a pizza destination, as eight state pizzerias ended up on the Daily Meal’s list of the country’s 101 best pies. Sally’s Apizza in New Haven, noted as number 3 on that list, also made it to Eater’s November roundup of the country’s 38 essential restaurants. In early December, the children of the Wooster Street pizzeria’s founder Salvatore Consiglio announced they had sold the nearly 80-year-old institution to new owners.
CTNOW traversed the wineries of Connecticut this summer, finding signature vintages and special releases, live entertainment, gourmet food options and a few surprises (like the tomato wine at Staehly Farm in East Haddam.) Connecticut’s beer scene continues to boom, with breweries like Counter Weight, New Park and Thomas Hooker at Colt among the year’s openings.
Food was a big draw at Dunkin’ Donuts Park, home of the Hartford Yard Goats, which opened in April. Sellout crowds flocked to the park’s wide variety of concessions, including the Bear’s Smokehouse stand in left field and the Hartford Neighborhood Flavors cart with a rotating selection of local vendors and diverse cuisines. Others lined up for the Dunkin’ Donuts-themed ballpark fare, including a “BLTDD” with bacon, lettuce and tomato on two glazed doughnuts, and the Dunkin’ and Chicken skewers, with Munchkin doughnut holes threaded kebab-style onto wooden sticks alongside boneless barbecue chicken wings.
The timing seemed ideal for West Hartford, a booming Connecticut dining destination, to finally have its own culinary celebration, and an estimated 1,000 guests attended the inaugural West Hartford Wine and Food Festival in June, a showcase of fine wines and upscale cuisine held outdoors on the grounds of the Kingswood Oxford school.
Connecticut chefs earned the chance to throw down and show off their skills in the 86’d Culinary Collision competition. The series of friendly battles began in February, as 16 total chefs faced off in late-night head-to-head competitions that stretched through the summer. Victorious chefs continued to semi-final and final rounds, with Xavier Santiago taking the ultimate crown.