Between warm temperatures and unpredictable conditions, it hasn't been a banner winter for skiers and snowboarders. But that hasn't stopped Fire at the Ridge, the new restaurant and lodge at Middlefield's Powder Ridge Mountain Park and Resort.
After several years in development, the picturesque restaurant opened in January, a spacious, light-filled structure of blond wood, glass and vaulted ceilings overlooking the slopes. With two seating options, guests enjoy classic pub fare in its Ridgeside Tavern and a fancier menu in its official dining room. But executive chef Kevin Cottle is quick to say that he doesn't consider it "fine dining" in the traditional sense.
"It's upscale cuisine in a comfortable setting," he said. "I want you to feel comfortable. There's no white tablecloths. … I want everyone to feel relaxed."
Cottle's name is familiar to those who've followed Connecticut's dining scene over the past decade. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, he was the executive chef at the Country Club of Farmington when he was chosen to appear on the sixth season of Fox's "Hell's Kitchen" in 2009 — and finished as the runner-up. After Powder Ridge owner Sean Hayes purchased the property in October 2012, Cottle signed on to oversee the resort's food and beverage offerings, which also includes its cafeteria-style Marketplace facility and a beer and wine garden.
Fire at the Ridge opened Jan. 15, but ran into a roadblock just days later when Middlefield's building inspector denied a necessary temporary certificate of occupancy because of its incomplete fire suppression system, though the state building inspector had approved a modification that would allow the restaurant to operate with a fire watch. The restaurant remained closed for nearly a week.
The chef's extensive experience — and love of seafood, stemming from his upbringing in Plymouth, Mass. — are evident in Fire at the Ridge's dinner menu. Oysters of Massachusetts origin are topped with cranberry granita, crab cakes are spiced with Thai flavors and ginger seafood foam, and a dish of monkfish is cured with sake and miso and livened with coconut curry and lemon grass nage.
The petit clam bake evokes summer with butter-poached lobster, littleneck clams and a roasted corn custard. Caramelized Georges Bank scallops are served with butternut squash, roasted apple risotto, pistachio-sage gremolata and vanilla beurre blanc. Cottle says he enjoys challenging diners with unconventional flavors and preparations.
"People look at it and say 'Whoa, you've got a lot of stuff going on there,'" he said. "And I say, 'Just try it. It all works.' They'll say, 'I didn't think these flavors would work, and I'm pleasantly surprised.'" Guests can also take a tour of the menu with a $70 five-course tasting experience, with beverage pairing for another $45.
Other highlights include housemade lemon-ricotta gnocchi, foie gras on brioche with sweet potato mousse, pistachio brittle and pork belly powder; hanger steak with smoked bacon risotto and Mexican chocolate mole and a whiskey cider-brined Berkshire pork chop with cranberry pecan spoonbread, jicama apple slaw and smoked maple demi-sec. Starters are $10 to $14; entrees are $19 to $36. Cottle is assisted by sous chef Courtney Oswald, and pastry chef Mike Lasek handles intricately crafted desserts, like a chocolate hazelnut terrine with port wine reduction.
Menus will rotate with the seasons, Cottle said, with an emphasis on fresh and sustainable ingredients. He works closely with Starlight Gardens of Durham, among other local suppliers.
In the cozy Ridgeside Tavern, the crowd has "taken on a life of its own," Cottle said, where locals have quickly become regulars and gravitate to a rotating selection of craft beers, many from Connecticut. The menu features smaller tavern plates like clam chowder, house-smoked wings, poutine and skillet mussels, and main dishes like heritage chicken pot pie (with meat from GourmAvian Farms in Bolton), steak frites and linguine and clams, priced at $8 to $29. The Ridgeside burger ($14) with Angus beef is draped with slices of house-cured bacon, aioli and melted cheddar and served on a brioche bun with a basket of Parmesan-black pepper fries. On Wednesday nights, burgers are half-price.
"We've seen a lot of the same faces, multiple times every week," said general manager Duncan Ferguson. "It's really kind of becoming its own community in there. ... It's really nice to see that grow."
Once the ski season wraps later this month, Powder Ridge's 225 acres will become a destination for warmer-weather activities, with mountain biking, a food truck festival, a barbecue cook-off and other outdoor events and adventures planned for 2016.
"We'll work on doing some unique things," Cottle said.
Fire at the Ridge and Ridgeside Tavern, 99 Powder Hill Road, Middlefield, are open Wednesday through Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m. 860-852-5444 and fireattheridge.com.