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The Essex: An Evolving Menu In An Elegant Atmosphere

Colt Taylor knew from a young age that he wanted to cook, taking kitchen jobs as a teenager at the original Saybrook Fish House and Dock and Dine in Old Saybrook.

His parents urged him to take a traditional path to college, but the desire to become a chef remained strong. Taylor ended up at the Culinary Institute of America after earning a degree from University of Vermont, and then his career took him all over the country, with stops at Mario Batali's Babbo, Gotham Steak at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach, and an executive chef role at New York's One If By Land, Two If By Sea.

Now Taylor's back home, ready to invest in his hometown of Essex. In June, he partnered with his father, Michael Hannifan, to open The Essex in the town's Centerbrook section, transforming a Tudor-style mansion previously used for office space into a high-energy, dynamic restaurant featuring a full open kitchen.

"We're attempting to rebuild the Hamptons the right way, or to build a new Mystic that's more convenient for central Connecticut," Taylor says. "I see a ton of opportunity here."

THE ATMOSPHERE: The expansive open space is sleek, sexy and striking, with the lively kitchen as its focus. The bar features an intricate aquatic-themed mural with fish, sharks, octopus and seahorses. That comes courtesy of Connecticut artist Melissa Barbieri — who happens to be Taylor's mother.

"We've brought a New York sense of style here, which is meant to be filled with sex appeal in every capacity, but not necessarily pretentious," Taylor says. "It's beautiful, it's elegant, but it's very approachable."

FEATURED/NOTEWORTHY DISHES: Taylor plans to change the menu frequently, reflecting seasonal ingredients and a desire to keep diners and staff engaged. Raw dishes have included Niantic Bay oysters, salmon poke; torn beef tartare with avocado, lime and bonito aioli and black bass ceviche with golden and red watermelon and espelette pepper.

Starters have featured Rhode Island halibut and mussels with sunchoke pudding and Stonington red shrimp with Thai watermelon gazpacho, and playful small plates like pork and pickles (crispy pork belly with seasonal house pickles and peanuts) and a sweet-savory foie gras "candy bar," fatty liver molded into a plank and half-dipped in chocolate, highlighted by fresh blueberries and squid ink brioche crumbs.

An early favorite, slated for a regular spot on the entree list, is the unique bacon and clam noodles, an intriguing hybrid of kotteri-style tonkotsu ramen and New England clam chowder laden with thick slabs of pork belly, thin noodles and cream. Other main dishes include sous-vide-prepared Black Pearl salmon, half-chicken in the style of coq au vin, and roasted corn risotto with raclette, mint and togarashi spice.

"The menu is constantly evolving, constantly changing; very few rules," Taylor says. "We're still working through it...We're trying to educate, elevate, but not in a pretentious manner."

Diners looking for an adventure can opt for a custom omakase-style tasting menu with seven (or more) courses, for $125. The chef's-choice menu serves as a preview of Hearth, another concept Taylor is planning to bringing to The Essex in October: a ticketed multi-course tasting with ever-changing menus in a secluded, intimate section of the restaurant. He expects pricing to be around $150 a person, or $225 with beverage pairings.

"The big thing is letting people know we're here, and we want to become a destination. ... We want to be a social endeavor," Taylor says. "Everything in this room is all about the energy of the kitchen pouring into the energy of the bar. Even on a less busy night, the dining room feels energetic, always."

The Essex also has a market component, featuring a retail space with specialty food products like olive oil, local cheeses and dairy products from Terra Firma and Arethusa farms, freshly-baked breads and prepared to-go meals.

THE BAR: The cocktail menu will rotate frequently, Taylor says, but follows three general categories: classics, with a white Negroni, Sazerac, apricot julep; rum-based tiki drinks like a Hurricane and a habanero-spiked Coquito Banana with coconut milk; and the 90s 2.0, with a fresh take on an appletini and a distinctive dirty martini with savory components like kombu dashi and Castelvetrano olives stuffed with aji amarillo gel.

"It's a play on the area," Taylor says. "That old-school gentlemanly approach with the brown booze; the fun beachy scene with the tiki menu; and then that boating world of the '90s."

PRICING: Lunch items, including soups, salads, panini and pretzel breads are $8 to $12. At dinner, raw bar plates and starters are $15 to $24; entrees are $18 to $38. Brunch dishes are $10 to $24. A multi-course dinner tasting menu is $125. Cocktails are $10 to $12.

HOURS: The Essex offers lunch Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner is served Tuesday through Thursday from 5:30 to 10 p.m. and from 5:30 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. Sunday "boozy brunch" runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and happy hour is available Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The market is open six days a week starting at 11 a.m., until the restaurant's closing time. Closed Mondays.

The Essex is at 30 Main St. in Centerbrook. 860-237-4189, theessex.com.

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