A new addition to Southington's restaurant scene hopes to make its mark with elevated twists on comfort food and cocktails with literal sizzle and pop.
Ideal Tavern, which opened on Center Street in July, brings a unique dining experience to the area, combining gastropub-style fare with lively, energetic mixology that plays with liquid nitrogen, custom-made ice cubes and surprising flavor combinations.
Executive chef Joe Lucci's menu features familiar plates like big burgers, macaroni and cheese, roasted chicken, flatbreads and risotto but with unexpected presentations, additions and techniques.
"It's contemporary; it's modern sophisticated American cuisine, basically," he said. "We're just trying to take ingredients and different products and textures that the average person is not going to think works together."
Each dish has a personal touch, courtesy of Lucci's culinary skill. The Ideal Burger, a custom blend of short rib, chuck, sirloin and brisket, is built on brioche with truffle aioli, manchego cheese and sunny-side-up egg. Butternut squash bisque is finished with spiced creme and amaretti cookie crumbs. The macaroni and cheese, with mascarpone cream, was presented with lobster and corn foam enhancements over the summer.
"Overall, people have loved the different variety, the uniqueness of everything," Lucci said. "Everything on this menu is a little more elevated than anything around here. ... We're trying to execute a very good product."
Lucci, an owner in the venture, comes to Ideal Tavern from the Market Place restaurants in Danbury and Woodbury. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Lucci, 30, began his restaurant career at 15 at a hotel in his native Pennsylvania. His resume in Connecticut also includes the Union League Cafe in New Haven and The Woodward House in Bethlehem.
Lucci met co-owner Simone Del Buono a few years ago, and they began working on the Center Street space, formerly home to Mainely Seafood, in 2014. The result is a modern, 98-seat space that's both polished and rustic, incorporating touches of reclaimed barn wood,
white subway tile, pendant lights and black leather booths. Decorative chalk art adorns the walls, and a semi-private collection of tables overlook windows to the kitchen. (The "Ideal" in the name pays homage to the town's former manufacturing company, Ideal Forging.)
As Ideal Tavern continues to settle into its space, the menu will soon swap over to welcome the flavors of fall. Summery corn and tomatoes cede to butternut squash, apples, cranberries, pumpkin, cabbage and mushrooms. Heartier dishes take precedence, like braised Allen Brothers boneless short ribs with parsnip puree and heirloom carrots; grilled Scottish salmon with Brussels sprouts and apple cider emulsion; and local mushroom risotto with truffle ricotta and pecans. The Hudson Valley duck confit small plate is enhanced with carrot-coconut emulsion and pumpkin seed oil.
Other plates remain on the menu but will sport updated garnishes and accoutrements, Lucci said. Mac and cheese's new add-ins include braised short rib and caramelized onions, mushroom and roasted squash with guanciale and spinach. Burrata will be served with purple cabbage puree, roasted pears and a walnut-golden raisin vinaigrette. A fall burger is dressed with crispy pork belly, spinach, Vermont goat cheese and pumpkin aioli. Lucci says his veal Bolognese dish will be a year-round staple, with the pasta options changing each season.
Small plates are $7 to $14, salads are $10 to $14 and entrees are $19 to $35.
General manager Ryan Tunnacliffe brings years of mixology experience to Ideal Tavern's bar, including proficiency with molecular techniques. "Cocktails of yesteryear" feature his takes on a Manhattan, rum swizzle, Bee's Knees and Moscow Mule with house spicy ginger beer, and signature drinks offer unorthodox blends of flavors: serrano pepper-infused tequila with beet juice, fennel seed and lime; cachaca with Thai basil, Thai chili and pumpkin seed oil; green chile vodka with Chartreuse and apple cider. (Cocktails are $10 to $13.)
"Our vision is to push the envelope here, to use as much locally sourced product [as possible.] We want to be unique," Lucci said. "My whole goal is to have a customer come in, experience this whole entire dining experience, walk out, and [say] "Wow, what was that? I'd like to come back."
Ideal Tavern, 142 Center St., Southington, is open Tuesday and Wednesday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Thursday, noon to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, noon to 11 p.m.; and Sunday, 12 to 9 p.m. The bar is open later. Closed Monday. 860-863-5444, idealtavern.com.