The Watch Factory Restaurant

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Review – New York Times | Dining Out; A Look Back at The Year’s BEST

THIS was the year that some restaurant cliches of the past gave way to a few new ones, notably Cajun-inspired dishes and mesquite-grilled meats and seafood. Chocolate-mania also was rampant. But 1986 was a first for this column: Only one new three-star restaurant was uncovered. Le Coq Hardi, Westin Hotel, 2701 Summer Street, Stamford (357-0098), is the namesake of its Ridgefield parent and like it offers a nouvelle cuisine menu, under the supervision of the chef, Carl Wright.

Celebratory dishes included a nest of spaghetti squash and snails with Pernod butter; seafood sausage with a mustard and chervil sauce; celery-root salad with smoked mussels, snails and cepes sauteed in Burgundy in a brioche; sliced duck breast in hazlenut sauce and desserts such as white mousse cake layered with fresh strawberries and a devilishly rich dark-chocolate torte. Prices are far from cheap and service early on was flawed, but should have smoothed out by now. Because the menu changes frequently, these dishes may be gone by now, but replacements should be equally imaginative.

Ten two-star restaurants were reviewed here this year, and in recalling them we are reminded of two other trends: the upgrading of chain hotel restaurants and the arrival of new, good restaurants in Stamford, a city not known in past years for its restaurant quality or quantity.

Two of Stamford’s outstanding establishments are in hotels. Cezanne’s, Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, 700 Main Street (358-8400), is a study in soft lighting, superb service and gracefully prepared dishes such as Oriental duck salad, escargots vintner – sauteed with carrot strips, ham, leeks and shallots in a garlic-cream sauce – and fillet of lamb in a sparkling, fresh thyme sauce.

Magnificent J’s, Hotel Sheraton Stamford, 240 Fairfield Avenue (967-2222), is another study in intimate hotel dining that highlights seafood and wood-grilled offerings such as a winning mesquite-grilled shrimp appetizer, swordfish steak in a coriander sauce and smoked prime rib of beef layered with pungent, garlicky pesto.

Stamford’s third elegant two-star restaurant is French. Le Mistral, 110 Harbor Plaza Drive (359-1890), has had a menu change since our visits, but we recall with pleasure fricassee of escargots and mushrooms; hot mussels soup with curry; poached sea scallops in saffron sauce and, among seductive desserts, orange mousse in a raspberry puree.

Flood Tide, The Inn at Mystic, junction of Routes 1 and 27, Mystic (536-8140), maintains two-star achievements in such dishes as its herbed soup Diana, crepes filled with lobster madeira, veal sweetbreads saute jambon and a clutch of mouth-watering desserts. A wide-angle view of Mystic Harbor adds to one’s dining pleasure.

At Bruxelles, 220 College Street, New Haven (777-7752), black and white decor and exemplary service meld with a lively bistro-like menu that tilts heavily toward grilled dishes. Go for the baked goat cheese, goose liver mousse royale, the grilled tuna or Atlantic swordfish, poppyseed torte, chocolate truffle decadence and pumpkin praline mousse torte.

Au Musee, Wadsworth Atheneum, 600 Main Street, Hartford (724-4848), uses an understated museum backdrop to display such gustatory jewels as pasta primavera; linguine with three onions; warm duck salad with walnuts and chocolate pot au creme. The small lunch and dinner menu changes daily. Another two-star place in town follows a different drummer. Truc Orient Express, 735 Wethersfield Avenue, Hartford (249-2818), fills the bill with many authoritative Vietnamese dishes. Look especially for Truc special shrimp rolls; chicken with grapefruit; stuffed chicken wings; sweet and sour chicken or mushrooms; happy pancake or red-cooked caramelized tofu.

Two other Oriental restaurants made this year’s two-star list. Ming Dynasty, 479 New Haven Avenue, Milford (874-8358), focuses on a raft of commendable Chinese dishes: honey walnuts; spicy wonton sesame sauce; emerald duck; spicy chicken with watercress and roast pork supreme. The big menu at Panda Pavilion, 1300 Post Road East, Westport (255-9577) features winners such as ginger duck, sauteed beef Sichuan-style and Hunan chicken with honey walnuts.

The Gourmet Table, Noroton Heights Shopping Center, Darien (656-1994), is a compact, cheerful eatery that demonstrates that you need not be fancy to be good. Choice ingredients, cooking expertise, a limited menu and consistency make this lunch-only spot top-notch, with the soups, shrimp salad, warm chicken salad, baked goat cheese and desserts all standouts.

Each year we try to revisit a few of previous years’ stellar performers. This fall, we found that of three revisited, all continue to merit their three stars because of a consistent tradition of top quality food, service and ambiance, despite a change of chefs at two places. They are the Old Lyme Inn, 85 Lyme Street, Old Lyme (434-2600); the Golden Lamb Buttery, Route 169, Brooklyn (774-4423) and La Grange, The Homestead Inn, 420 Field Point Road, Greenwich (869-7500). The two-star bistro, Dameon, 30-32 Railroad Place, Westport (226-6580), first reviewed eight years ago, also continues to offer imaginative food and live music in an agreeable, cosy setting.

Finally, let’s hear it for several promising one-star newcomers. Azteca’s, 14 Mechanic Street, New Haven (624-2454), deserves kudos for the light touch of its Mexican-accented dishes in a stylishly minimalist setting. Cooper Tavern, 37 Ethan Allen Highway, Ridgefield (544-8739), offers a modified colonial backdrop for a zesty Italian menu, and The Davenport, 83 West Park Place, Stamford (357-0281), is another attractive Stamford newcomer, featuring a mix of New American dishes and classic Continental fare.

<b>Review by Elise Maclay, published at Connecticut Magazine – March 2011</b>