An insider's view of the Connecticut dining scene
Jun 6, 2014
06:40 AMThe Connecticut Table
Chef's Table Wine Dinners at Foxwoods' Al Dente Restaurant a Sure Bet
Courtesy of Foxwoods
Guests at a previous Chef’s Table Wine Dinner at Al Dente Restaurant at Foxwoods Resort Casino.
Editor's update: The story below was first published in March, and the Al Dente wine dinners held since then have sold out. Another chance to get in on this delicious series and be charmed by Chef David Brai comes June 27, when the dishes on the menu include Mushroom Fonduta, Firefly Farms Kielbasa & Beans, Archer Angus Beef Tenderloin and Beltane Farm Chevre. Wines include Jonathan Edwards Merlot from North Stonington, Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc and Hess 19 Block Cuvee red blend. We saw and chatted with Chef Brai again June 5 and he tipped us that there are still some seats left for this dinner, so we're tipping you. Find the details on Al Dente's Facebook page, and to see why making a reservation is such a sure bet, read on:
Who says there’s no sure bet at a casino, that the odds are always stacked in favor of the house?
In at least once instance, the guests always win—with a jackpot of big, beautiful flavors that come at a fairly modest cost—at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Conn.
At the casino’s Al Dente restaurant, which specializes in upscale Italian cuisine, the debut of the 2014 series of Chef’s Table Wine Dinners signals one of the best ways in Connecticut to roll the dice on a multi-course meal imagined by a passionate, creative chef and come out a winner every time.
Al Dente’s Chef de Cuisine, David Brai, formerly owned Seminara’s Ristorante in Westport with his wife, Victoria, before coming to Foxwoods in November 2007. The chef who scored a Zagat-rating of excellent for his own place oversees the creation of “passionate Italian cuisine” at Al Dente, using the freshest ingredients and preparing them simply, letting quality and deep, rich flavors shine through.
(Left, sheep’s milk ricotta gnocchi paired with chunks of delicious lobster meat, sweet corn and asparagus in a lobster-infused broth.)
Al Dente is one of Foxwoods’ fine dining venues, and the menu will tempt any gourmet. But the special dinners pairing smaller-bite dishes with complementary wines take the experience to a new level—in terms of the taste sensations but not the price. (Most folks assume having dinner at Foxwoods will cost a premium, but Al Dente’s tariff of $95 per person for a five- or six-course meal, including different wines paired with different dishes, is reasonable.)
In fact, the cost includes the kind of thing those credit card commercials call “priceless”—Chef Brai preparing the dishes before your eyes, only several feet away from a sleek, 15-person communal table, and discussing each dish with guests (right), as Al Dente manager Greg Wintrob talks about the wines and how they enhance the flavors of the cuisine.
The next dinner in the series is April 24 at 6 p.m., and it features among its dishes Sicilian rice balls, roasted beets with a local goat cheese croquette, roasted squab with chickpea polenta, swordfish rolls and a verbena-rhubarb tart (See the full menu at the bottom.)
The March 23 dinner opened with a dish composed of grilled spicy prawns served with cauliflower mousse, pignoli and currant gastrique. The heat on the perfectly-cooked prawns hit the right note; just enough to get your taste buds riled up before the sweetness of the prawns swept in to offer balance and tie all the flavors together. It was served with the refreshing Schmitt Söhne “Relax” Riesling from Germany.
The Antipasti course was Baccalà, or salt cod, served over corn polenta with micro cilantro. The chef explained to guests that real cod can be hard to come by because of overfishing, and that he sent back one delivery that was an imposter fish. This cod, and the overall dish, was so masterful in taste and execution that it made you feel the seafaring heritage that defines the southwestern Connecticut region where Foxwoods is located. The Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand offered crisp counterpoint.
In terms of aristocracy, subtly and nuance, the pasta dish (shown at the top) was the star of the menu—sheep’s milk ricotta gnocchi paired with chunks of delicious lobster meat, sweet corn and asparagus in a lobster-infused broth. Total seaside heaven, Italian-style. In a change from the printed menu, the dish was paired with Flowers Vineyard & Winery’s bright and lively red blend called Perennial, from California.
A locally-sourced Firefly Farms pork chop, served with apple peperonata, Vidalia onion and Fontina agnolotti, was the Secondo Piatto, or main course (left), and it was delicious. A very elegant King Estate pinot noir was paired with the dish.
The meal closed with a beautiful dessert course offering sculptural elements linked by a range of citrus flavors, including Mandarin sorbet (below). It was served with a housemade limoncello.
Chef Brai is clearly reveling in the freedom and opportunity to connect with guests more intimately, and through a far grander range of flavor profiles, that the chef’s table dinners offer.
“That bar’s always been there,” he says of the table used for the dinners, just inside the entrance to Al Dente. “It used to be a pastry bar” that was sometimes used to display food.
The area was redesigned last year, and Brai says, “Last spring we started to do some of these events. I have about 10 of these under my belt.”
Chef’s table-style dinners have grown in popularity for the particular kind of appeal they offer. “You have this kind of grazing meal rather than one big entrée that costs you $50 and you have to eat the whole thing,” Brai says in referencing part of that appeal.
Having the chef to yourself gilds the appeal of participating, and sealing the deal is the fact that $95 per person is a nice price, given that the portions are good, the wine flows pretty freely and consuming the same amount via ordering a la carte would certainly cost more—but offer fewer flavors.
Wintrob, the manager, does the wine pairings with the chef, and Brai says, “For May, I told him, ‘Let’s think about wine. Let’s put wine first.’ And we’ll form the concept around that. I’ll match the food to the wine.”
Then, in June, “I’m working with some local farmers,” says the chef, who will let the freshest, most in-season items drive the menu.
“The best part is we can not only do this tableside cooking, but we can offer you fresh, local organic Connecticut-raised and Rhode Island-raised products,” Brai says.
Beyond these monthly dinners—which will be presented more frequently if there’s demand—Brai is working on other concepts for the chef’s table space.
One is to tempt Al Dente regulars to up their ante by planning special events at the table, “and we’ve had some people do that,” Brai says. The appeal? “We can do any kind of menu you want.”
Another thought in the works is to open the table to everyday guests by way of a separate small plates menu for the venue within a venue.
It sounds like a great plan—but in the meantime, place a bet on having a great experience and sign up for a chef’s table dinner.
Here’s a different way of saying why you won’t be disappointed: Brai knows the chips are stacked against him when it comes to building an audience for the type of dinners that are now offered in plenty of easy-access restaurants in dining-rich communities in Connecticut and beyond.
And he knows the mindset of folks who don’t naturally think of traveling to Foxwoods primarily, or solely, for a special wine dinner—they think that doing so is going to cost more than it would at the gourmet hotspot closer to home.
So Brai—who seems to be all about satisfying his customers—knows he has to work harder on the chef’s table dinners, be more creative, and keep the cost under control, so that folks walk out happily thinking it was a great deal, that they "beat the house."
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Brai has lived in Connecticut for 17 years, and has been instrumental in opening of numerous restaurants, including Gusto’s in Milford, The Red Lion in Ridgefield and Acqua in Westport. He attributes his success to his mother, Leda, an inspiring cook, and his Grandfather Francesco Seminara, who encouraged him to pursue his talent.
Foxwoods Resort Casino is owned and operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. See Foxwoods.com for a comprehensive look at all that Foxwoods has to offer. (Also see our always popular story Eating Our Way Through ... Foxwoods.)
Chef’s Table Menu
April 24, 2014 I 6pm I $95++