If you were a veteran chef and restaurateur with a highly successful on-site catering business and you had recently opened a handsome tavern next door with a rustic Italian theme, where would you look for a new chef? Would you promote from within, chat up some of your fellow restaurateurs, post the position or even recruit a chef from your native Italy?
Or would you turn to the Food Network show “Chef Wanted with Anne Burrell”? That’s what Tony Mavuli, owner of Tavern 1757 and The Inn at Villa Bianca in Seymour, did.
In the episode, which was broadcast in August, four chefs — hailing from Brooklyn, Cleveland, Dallas and Prairie Village, Kansas — competed for the position.
Cleveland’s Brian Reilly won and took the helm. Early word of mouth was extremely positive. We gave Reilly a few months to settle in, and then put the restaurant to the test. We found that it had much going for it.
Tavern 1757 is next to widely known Villa Bianca and just across the road from a scenic stretch of the Housatonic River. The handsome stone-and-stuccoed building is impossible to miss. A second-floor porch off a large private function room offers a beautiful view of the river. There’s also a gorgeous wine room in the cellar with a long table that seats about 18 people. But the main dining takes place in the informal first-floor tavern, which has a large marble-topped bar and wood tables, chairs, floors, ceiling planks, pillars and beams. Sponged cream colored walls artfully reveal painted stonework underneath.
Service is friendly and attentive, but occasionally lacking in polish, with one server speaking over us and another having difficulty understanding how our order dovetailed with the restaurant’s prix-fixe menu. That prix-fixe option allows customers to get an incredible four-course meal for just $45 without precluding them from picking the best or most expensive items on the menu.
Tavern 1757 features terrific drink offerings, including imaginative cocktails ($9-$12), a fine assortment of draft and bottled beers ($4- $6), a wide but at times confusing selection of wines by the glass ($8- $26) and a terrific international list of bottled wines ($21-$295), with plentiful choices at both the low and high ends. We fared nicely with glasses of California Cab ($8) and a reserve Malbec ($10) one night and a 2009 Petite Sirène Bordeaux, France ($33) the next.
Which brings us full circle to the most important thing that Tavern 1757 has going for it, thanks to its enlightened owner and hard-won chef — great and exciting food. But first, I must say that we didn’t get off to a brilliant start. As we were being seated, my date’s high heels slipped on the wood floor, pitching her into a group of diners and leading me to quip dryly, if not very gallantly, “She’s very friendly.” The bread we were served with nice herbed olive oil was a tad tired. And our server’s announcement that he’d be bringing us a glass of “God’s champagne,” which turned out to mean water, only set us up for disappointment — especially because just the night before at the new Capital Grille in Hartford , we actually had been started off with complimentary flutes of champagne.
All of which was soon forgotten, as one great dish followed the next. From the Tastes section of the menu, the arancini ($6) featured three crunchy balls of tomato butter risotto filled with mozzarella and topped with a dot of roasted garlic aïoli and shredded Parmesan. A chilled octopus salad ($7) with celery, pickled red onion and chili oil didn’t sound especially tempting but was actually light and lovely. Prince Edward Island mussels ($8) in a slightly sweet black-Sambuca-and-fennel broth were intoxicating. And there was no way to go wrong with a trio of fresh figs ($7) stuffed with Gorgonzola, wrapped in prosciutto and splashed with a fig-and-aged-balsamic reduction.
From the Small Plates section, a pear salad ($10) with arugula, pickled onion, Gorgonzola and nut brittle, and a baby beet salad ($10) with micro arugula, fromage blanc and a warm bacon vin were both delicious and fresh beyond reproach. Perfectly breaded, seasoned and fried calamari with peppers and onion ($9) came with both horseradish crème fraîche and marinara dipping sauces, a nice juxtaposition.
A mini-rack of three Pennsylvania lamb ribs ($13) plated with harissa and brussels sprouts was overcooked but so flavorful we loved it anyway.
From the Brick-Oven Pizza section, a wonderful duck pizza ($15) was a thincrust white pie topped with Ubriaco Prosecco (a.k.a., drunken cheese), red wine grapes, duck meat and crispy skin. From the Pasta section, the housemade pappardelle ($20) with Bolognese sauce, grated Parmesan and a crisp sage leaf was so wonderful and sure-handed, I wanted to ask — who is this chef? But we already knew.
The tour de force continued with the Beef & Game and Poultry & Fish sections of the menu. As with the lamb rack, a veal chop ($32) served over the soft house gnocchi with diagonally cut asparagus and sage butter was cooked medium-well but surprisingly good despite the mistreatment, our server again having failed to ask us the degree of doneness we wanted and we not thinking to volunteer it. But in hindsight, I’m surprised the kitchen would accept either order without a temperature specified or would err toward medium-well.
No such niggling concerns clouded our enjoyment of any of the remaining entrées. Served over braised local greens and butter roasted carrots, gorgeous moist and flaky cod ($28) was done in an Asian barbecue sauce laced with pineapple and ginger. Blushing pink slices of marinated hanger steak ($27) were brushed with roasted garlic oil for a wealth of flavor and presented with local potatoes and haricots verts. But our favorite dish of all was rabbit leg and thigh ($24) braised with rabbit stock, miso, vin santo and dates and served with baby carrots and turnips over Parmesan polenta.
Desserts ($6) also exhibited a high fun factor. We enjoyed an apple tart dotted with melted bits of Gorgonzola, a flaky pumpkin tart with a dollop of pumpkin crema and an apple cider panna cotta topped with a molasses ginger snap crumble. But the coup de grâce was brioche French toast sandwiched with milk chocolate semifreddo and crowned with a cinnamon crema.
What’s the finest restaurant in The Valley? It could well be Tavern 1757. Reilly proved his cooking chops on “Chef Wanted with Anne Burrell.” Give him the chance, and he’ll prove them to you again and again.
Spencer Caldwell has worked both sides of the aisle. He is a long-time restaurant critic and food writer. He has also worked as the director of quality control for a Manhattan-based fast food chain, as a wine steward for an upscale Westchester restaurant, and as a restaurant developer and consultant.
318 Roosevelt Drive, Seymour | 203-516-5461 | tavern1757.com