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.