An insider's view of the Connecticut dining scene
Nov 7, 2013
02:49 PMThe Connecticut Table
Connecticut's 'Secret' Culinary Wizards (Conan O'Brien, Cooking Light Know)
The restaurant on Route 202 in the Woodville section of Washington in Litchfield County; from the Ct website. All food photos by Laurie Gaboardi/Litchfield County Times
Tommy Juliano is an artist, a magician, a benevolent puppet master with other people’s taste buds—and the man who, if you let him, will shake your faith in the sanctity of dessert menus at your favorite restaurants, even those that rank among the best in Connecticut and beyond.
Strictly speaking, he’s the “new” pastry chef at Community table (Ct) in the Litchfield County town of Washington, where he and Executive Chef Joel Viehland comprise a culinary high-wire act that delivers cuisine rigorously rooted to local ingredients of the highest integrity and inspired in part by the best—and least gimmicky—practices of what’s known as molecular gastronomy; the combination of the cooking arts with scientific techniques. (Tommy Juliano, right.)
They travel in a select coterie of like-minded and similarly talented chefs in Connecticut—Jeffrey Lizotte of ON20 in Hartford and Tyler Anderson of Millwright's in Simsbury are two members—and together these folks guide restaurants that are distinctly different than other “acclaimed” places, and palpably better for those hungry for cuisine that balances deliciously on that high wire at the very edge of the culinary envelope … and never falls.
What does that mean?
At Ct, in Juliano’s hands, it translates into desserts like an ethereal elderflower mousse with Bartlett pear, mascarpone, milk thistle seed and local honey. In the spirit of a sleight-of-hand, it’s so delicate that it’s sort of there and not there at the same time—and the beautiful flavors seem to unfold like the layers of a fine wine on the palate, even as the bite that was on your fork or spoon has vanished like an apparition.
It translates into Juliano’s vision of a deconstructed Snickers bar, a dark chocolate pot de crème dessert in which the hedonistically rich chocolate is “hiding” under other ingredients laid bare for all to see; nutella, pistachio, fig and ricotta gelato.
And it translates into a piece of sculptural trompe-l’oeil brilliance consisting of what seems on first glance to be a plastic cup but is actually white chocolate, paired with beets, raspberries, amaranth and buttermilk ice cream. (Above, dark chocolate pot-de-creme with Nutella, rye and ricotta gelato.)
How does he do all that?
Juliano will tell you the art and science behind his creations if you ask, but like faith, classical music, Modern art and babies, the process is better left unexplained to keep the beauty of the magic intact.
By contrast, it’s advisable to take a peek at how these desserts evolve like a gripping narratives on each plate delivered to your table, and you can do that by heading to his blog and scrolling down to the section on his Raspberry Ice. There, photos chronicle the fork-by-fork unfolding of that dessert, showing how flavor delights kept secret on arrival by Juliano’s innovative techniques burst into the spotlight as you dig in.
At Ct, you can order a three-course dessert tasting for $24. (Each dessert is $10 when ordered as an individual portion).
“This is a different level of pastry that hasn’t been seen in Connecticut yet,” says Viehland. “Tommy’s a rare guy who really gets the need to create something that’s just as delicious as it looks. [His desserts are] so beautiful and so interesting and so technically perfect.”
And that makes Juliano and Viehland the two proverbial peas in a pod. Viehland’s culinary choreography is unlike anything else in the region, and perhaps in the state, and he’s a young chef (37) with a national profile. (Above, buttermilk mousse with Concord grapes, yuzu, sorrel and milk thistle seed.)
In the 276-page Thanksgiving double- issue of Cooking Light magazine, Viehland was one of the select few chefs honored in the “2013 Trailblazing Chef Awards.” Viehland picked up “The Small-Town Chef Award.”
“Consider a late-summer/early fall dish called Fallen Leaves, in which slightly dehydrated kale and dried pears, winter squash and watermelon combine with a verdant vinaigrette made vivid with nasturtium and sorrel,” writer Robin Bashinsky described, before saying, “It’s a perfect summation of Viehland’s cuisine: a dish compelling to the eye and mouth with combinations as fleeting and ever-changing as the seasons.” (Below, Juliano with Viehland, right.)
At a dinner in October, two very different small plates (appetizers) produced the same exclamatory effect—the fall squash soup with apple smoked bacon, sage and spiced chocolate was super rich and satisfying, while Glidden Point oysters were refreshingly different, served in an oyster emulsion with cream and dill.
In a phenomenon that can be sampled online, everything on the menu sounds temptingly amazing, and while a waiter sung the praises of Viehland’s authentic pasta Bolognese, and the rabbit risotto sounded novel, it was too difficult to pass up the duck breast with beets, carrots, primrose and red currants, along with a halibut entrée served with mussels, cottage cheese, scallop, cream, dill and fennel.
The duck was intensely flavorful, crispy and artistically rendered, while the halibut looked like a magical white cloud—one in which every flavor nuance of all the ingredients emerged both individually and harmoniously in a piece of seafaring perfection. (We make an intense mussel stock, concentrate it and add fresh cream … Viehland will say when asked about the dish, but, as with all of the assemblages sculpted by Viehland and Juliano, it’s better to let the magic remain confined to the kitchen.)
In the four years that Viehland has been at the helm of Ct, the evolution is evident. The local foods ethos was always the driving force—along with the congenial “community” aspect evoked by the black walnut communal table crafted by Warren woodworker Alfred Brown that gives Ct its name—but cuisine that was once a bit more rustic has grown to be defined by nuance, complexity and sophistication.
It remains ever-changing. “We’ll kind of bounce ideas off of each other and see the final products and we’ll talk about what will make [the dishes] better,” Viehland says of the process of creating 35 to 40 menus a year that are completely new. When a test dish is just right, Viehland and his team stop tinkering with it and add it to the menu, keeping a close eye on when it should rotate out in favor of something new.
While favorites like the halibut entrée might stay on the menu for almost two months because of popular demand, the Ct’s sophisticated clientele likes the appeal of new and bold flavors.
That clientele—it’s a marvel, too. At dinner on a recent Saturday, the next table was graced by the presence of Dorothy, Hamilton, founder and CEO of the International Culinary Center in Manhattan, which was founded as the French Culinary Institute. A culinary force who has worked with the best chefs in the world, she’s a Ct fan—like a fellow Litchfield County denizen, Conan O’Brien.
They come for food that dazzles like that of the hottest urban four-star spots—paired with Ct’s carefully curated list of beers and wines by the bottle or glass—and for how such delicious results are anchored by restaurant’s mission and philosophy, summed up on the website: “The Community Table’s philosophy is rooted in a profound respect for nature and its seasons. Our restaurant is sustainably conceived, designed and operated. The cuisine is light and healthy, but bold and natural in feel and flavor. Our restaurant is for the community of Connecticut and we strive to make it available to all.” (Above, a white chocolate egg with pistachio, sheep's milk yogurt, golden raspberries, nasturtium and ice cream.)
The culinary magic and mastery that Viehland and Juliano dish up shouldn’t come as a surprise. Viehland has worked at Gramercy Tavern in New York City, along with Chez es Saada and Quilty’s in Soho, with Chef Katy Sparks, who, he says, taught him how to think and taste.
After that he was in New Orleans, working with chef Susan Spicer and chef Donald Link at Herbsaint, and then as a sous chef for Emeril Lagasse. Then he moved to Copenhagen, to work at NOMA, a two-star Michelin restaurant that was ranked third in the world by San Pellegrino's Top 50 Restaurants in the World while he was there. Cooking Light says he left a potential sous chef position at one of the best restaurants in the world in 2007 to start a family.
Juliano’s path was different, which is indicated when he says, “I come from a background of all over the place.” In each of those places, he grew and evolved, and the list includes stints working with and learning from the molecular gastronomy pioneer Wylie Dufrense at his restaurant wd~50 in Manhattan, where he started out as a savory chef, but one who kept gravitating to the pastry kitchen.
There were also stops at the acclaimed Arrows Restaurant in Ogunquit, Maine, (“I really matured with ingredients. I really learned that ingredients are more important than anything,” Juliano says), and a happy tenure as pastry chef at the Copper Beech Inn in Ivoryton when Anderson of Millwright's was the chef there.
When Anderson was moving on to open the highly-praised Millwrights, Juliano was supposed to go with him, but geography and family issues intervened and Juliano ended up working with chef Jeffrey Lizotte at ON20 in Hartford.
“That was an amazing experience,” Juliano said of the working with Anderson at the Copper Beech. “Tyler by far is one of my favorite chefs in Connecticut. … My food definitely progressed after working with Tyler.”
He has equal praise for Lizotte. (“I’m still great friends with Jeff. He’s an amazing chef”) and he appreciates how Connecticut’s best chefs have close friendships. “We all stay in touch and we all stay friends. It’s not like New York,” Juliano says.
In fact, Viehland and Anderson are halfway through a restaurant swap this fall. On Oct.16, Viehland presented “his wildly local cuisine” at Millwright’s, and on Nov. 11, Anderson will come to Ct with his signature inspired New England cuisine. (The dinner is sold out).
As for some other favorite places of Juliano's, who lived on the shoreline before moving to West Cornwall, he goes off the map of places in New Haven anointed by “pizza snobs” to praise Da Legna, he also loves Caseus Bistro in New Haven, and he prefers Hanami II in Branford for sushi, to name a few. (Below, Warm Nocino Cake with McIntosh apples, walnuts, sweet cicely and brown butter ice cream.)
Whether or not you try those places, get to Ct and experience the magic of Viehland and Juliano, who changes his desserts up every week, and sometimes every day, based on the available in-season ingredients sourced from local farmers.
"There’s nothing better in the fall in New England than pumpkins and apples," says Juliano, who on the phone was sketching out a dessert featuring sugar pumpkins and incorporating brown sugar, brown butter and Nocino, the bittersweet essence of black walnuts … .
The Community Table, located on Route 202 in the Woodville section of Washington, is open for dinner every night except Tuesday and Wednesday. Though it has an expertly curated list of wines and beers, Ct also allows patrons to bring their own wine, with a corkage fee of $25.
For more information and reservations, call the restaurant at 860-868-9354. The website is communitytablect.com.