By LEEANNE GRIFFIN, Special to the Courant
The Hartford Courant
March 27, 2014
You could say chef Meg Fama was doing farm-to-table cooking long before it was trendy.
Fifteen years ago, Fama took a job as a chef at New Haven's Common Ground High School, where she learned "the beauty of growing on the property and the communication with the farmer," she said. "What do you have this week? What has to get used? There's eggplant, what can I do with it?... [I learned] at that point not to have a full [set] menu."
Fama brings her skill and passion for local food to the stylish Oak Haven Table & Bar, a State Street enclave that's earning a solid reputation for its farmers' market fare and craft cocktails. The 49-seat restaurant's menu of small plates, entrees and snacks is driven by market availability, made with the freshest product possible. And Fama is now reconnecting with some of the same farmers she met years ago.
"It was nice to go over [to the markets] and talk to them, tell them 'This is where I am and I'd really like to start using your product,'" she said.
At Oak Haven, Fama has designed a rotating menu of small, medium and large plates, all portioned for sharing. Selections such as yellowfin tuna with watermelon radish, blue crab cakes, and meatballs with fresh mozzarella are priced at $8 to $9. Medium plates are $10 to $17, like the best-selling beer-braised and lacquered Berkshire pork belly over bitter greens with crispy poached egg; diver scallops with verjus beurre blanc; pan-roasted duck breast; burrata with seasonal vegetables; and risotto, which showcases in-season flavors (wild mushroom gave way to butternut squash recently.)
Heartier appetites will appreciate the large entrée plates: house-brined stuffed pork loin, sliced prime skirt steak, poussin (chicken) with amaretto stuffing and honey glaze, and the fresh, sustainable fish catch of the day, at $19 to $24.
Snacks ($5 to $7) are popular among those looking for something to complement drinks – the housemade pretzel "nugs" are favorites, with German beer mustard and Vermont cheddar sauce. Other bites include crostini topped with sliced steak, and vegetarian sides: hominy with quinoa and black beans, pan-seared Brussels sprouts, shaved beets with spicy greens.
Ingredients come from a growing list of farmers and producers. Chaplin Farms provides fruit, including berries that have been canned and preserved for the winter months. Oak Haven's dairy products – milk, cream and eggs – come from the Farmer's Cow group in Connecticut, and Butterfield Farm of Suffield provides a changing selection of artisan cheeses.
Waldingfield Farm of Washington, Stone Gardens of Shelton and Ro-Jo Farms in Bethany are other noted suppliers, as well as Blue Slope Farms in North Franklin, which recently inspired the espresso-marinated, spice-rubbed veal brisket dish on the medium plate menu.
Fama estimates that the menu is "65 to 75 percent" local in the winter, and she's aiming for a goal of 99 percent local in the summer, save for the citrus used in cocktails.
"Personally, that's my goal," she said. "We're a neighborhood restaurant and we should really be community oriented."
"We have enough farms in Connecticut, and over the New York and Massachusetts lines, where we can really utilize those. I don't think a lot of people know how many farms are in the area."
Often that means fewer traditional preparations, or the exclusion of popular ingredients, but that's the commitment at Oak Haven, she said. "I made a banana pancake but I used a liqueur; I really don't want to use [an out of season fruit.] If we're a farm to table restaurant, it's kind of a contradiction. Would I love to do some sort of avocado dish? Yes, but that's not local."
But the variable seasonal ingredients allow for creative experimentation, with arancini, soups and flatbreads reflecting what's best and freshest that day.
"At other restaurants, if you're doing the exact same thing, it does get a little boring," Fama said.
Co-owners Albert Greenwood and Craig Hotchkiss bring their shared experience to the bar program – Hotchkiss is a sommelier and Greenwood handles craft beer and the list of Prohibition-style cocktails. The two were childhood friends growing up in West Haven and spent time working in the food and beverage industry in Miami. "I got married, he had kids, and we came back to New Haven," Greenwood said. "…We've always had a soft spot in our hearts for New Haven."
Cocktails ($10 to $13) are all made with freshly squeezed juices and incorporate smaller-batch boutique spirits, including house infusions. A "market special" changes daily, made with vodka, fresh fruit and herbs; a recent recipe featured baked apple puree. And barrel-aged cocktails, resting for 6 to 8 weeks in oak barrels, are highlighted on the menu with a "date of birth" indicating how long it was aged. "We hit a snag a little while ago because they were going so fast," Greenwood said.
The bar is "very bourbon-heavy," with 50 varieties and another 60 whiskeys, Greenwood said. "We're always kind of evolving that … We're very fortunate to get a lot of allocations from the state."
Brunch is another offering Oak Haven hopes to expand, particularly as the weather warms. Right now, it's served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays, with a mix of sweet and savory dishes: local granola with fruit puree and yogurt, stuffed French toast, benedicts, a waffle egg sandwich, lobster salad on brioche and tofu scramble. These are complemented by special brunch cocktails: sparkling wine with choice of fresh juice, a breakfast margarita with orange marmalade, Bloody Marys garnished with bacon and cornichons and a "gin swizzle" with egg whites.
The State Street neighborhood has been good to Oak Haven, Greenwood and Fama said, noting a good feeling of community and a growing group of regular customers.
"I think New Haven surprises people," Greenwood said. 'There [are] just so many things in New Haven that people don't know about."
Fama, a Shelton native, agreed. "I couldn't wait to leave Connecticut when I was growing up," she said. "…But now? I'm home."
>>Oak Haven, 932 State St., in New Haven, is open Monday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to close; and Sunday, 11 a.m. to close. Information: 203-535-0036 and oakhaventableandbar.com.
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