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Small Plates, Big Welcome At Osa

Osa, the new Middletown restaurant by Krust's Kevin Wirtes and Rich Garcia, took longer to open than expected. The owners of the wood-fired pizza and whiskey bar first announced plans for their new project with locally inspired small plates in July 2016, but various obstacles pushed the opening to Aug. 24 of this year.

The delay turned out to be good fortune, in some way, for executive chef Matthew Wick. The extra months helped him build up his pantry of pickled and preserved fruits and vegetables, housemade vinegars and cured meats, with the goal of cooking with local ingredients year-round.

"It's great on so many levels," Wick says. The chef spent 10 years in the kitchen at River Tavern in Chester, where he developed lasting relationships with area farmers and fishermen and discovered a love for foraging for mushrooms and other wild edible plants.

"I think it's just better to make everything in-house. It gives you a more personal voice for your cooking, for sure."

Osa's name is inspired by Wick's travels and study in Italy. He spent time at a working farm where the owners had adopted a wild boar — an unusual instance, as the animal is known for its intrusive and destructive nature. The farmers told Wick that the boar, named Osa, was abandoned by her mother and that they had chosen to take her in.

"That really touched me, that they were that compassionate and willing to take in an animal that could hurt what they were doing, and treat it like a part of the family," he says. "That really resonated with me, especially further down the road when I was in Italy. I started to see how that connected with hospitality there.

"It was pretty magical how kind everyone was. No matter who you were, you come into their house, you're welcome…I want that sort of energy and vibe here with what we do. I really want people to feel welcome when they come in, like they're in our home."

THE ATMOSPHERE: Garcia and Wirtes enlisted Krust's designer, Jason Paradis of Primary Build, for the clean, minimal 60-seat space featuring thousands of feet of pine wood. Light cascades through the slats of the wood lining the ceiling, illuminating the tables and floor below. A long communal table sits at the center of the room, encouraging diner interaction.

"We wanted to make a communal, sharing theme for the restaurant and create an awesome space to showcase Matt's food, the style of food he likes to cook," Garcia says.

FEATURED/NOTEWORTHY DISHES: Many of Osa's dishes are kissed by smoke and heat from the kitchen's wood-fired oven and grill. A handful of snack/sharing options include housemade bread (a naturally leavened sourdough rye) served with whipped lardo or cultured butter; vegetable options like roasted olives and charred shishito peppers; and spicy pork rinds with clam dip and sea bean pickles.

Small to medium composed plates will change regularly to reflect seasonality and availability of local ingredients, Wick says. Early dishes include scallop crudo featuring fresh and preserved tomato, spicy yogurt and green coriander; roasted Mystic oysters with smoked guanciale, spicy citrus mignonette and pork agnolotti with smoked tomato sauce, fonduta with Arethusa Farm Dairy's Diva cheese and black olive crumbs. A toast made with coppa di testa (head cheese), garlic mustard mayonnaise, ramp kraut and Mystic Cheese's Twain was a standout favorite at pop-up events Osa held in advance of their opening.

Other plates star vegetables as the main event, like smoked carrots with black garlic creme fraiche; little gem lettuce with grilled herb dressing, cured egg yolk, nigella and onion blossom and charred zucchini with lovage salsa verde, horseradish gribiche and tropea onion.

Larger-format dishes are served family-style, with options like grilled whole black sea bass, roasted whole poussin with sweet and sour baby eggplant and cherry tomatoes, and wood-roasted mushrooms with charred kale, soft polenta and rosemary gravy. Osa recently featured a pork shank dish, sourcing the meat from local partner Walden Hill, and guests are still clamoring for it, say Garcia and Wirtes.

Garcia encourages Osa's diners to "submit" and open their minds to menu items that may seem unusual.

"You're going out to be transported, and that's the bottom line. It's about the whole experience. ...These are very familiar flavors. Even though you may see ingredients you don't know, the second you take your bite, you say 'OK, I get it.'"

THE BAR: Osa offers eight beers on draft, with four dedicated to New England-area breweries and the other half featuring European selections from Germany and Belgium. Wines focus on biodynamic, sustainable and organic brands, Wirtes says, and the majority of the bottles also have glass pricing. Cocktails also connect to the kitchen's local and seasonal mission, with house infusions and preserved fruits, and the spirits menu features a full page of whiskeys and more than two dozen selections of amaro, or bitter Italian herb liqueurs.

PRICING: Snacks and small plates are about $6 to $15. Large-format dishes are $22 to $30; desserts are $8. Cocktails are $11.

HOURS: Osa is open Wednesday and Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. and Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to midnight. Closed Monday and Tuesday.

Osa is at 500 Main St. in Middletown. 860-358-9782, osarestaurant.com.

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