It’s no secret that “farm-to-table” restaurants have become the standard in Connecticut’s dining scene. New restaurants that draw on their local farms and farmers for the best of seasonal produce have begun to appear with greater frequency. But this return to locally sourced ingredients is not solely relegated to new restaurants; some established restaurants have also returned to a more traditional way of sourcing their ingredients.
A Neighborhood Restaurant
Elm Restaurant in New Canaan is a well known fine-dining restaurant that has long served top-tier cuisine in a refined setting, but when Executive Chef Luke Venner came on board earlier this year, he helped to lead the restaurant in a slightly different direction. “This restaurant was opened as a temple of gastronomy, a destination restaurant, all the best of the best of the best, super high-class service and tasting menus, and the food was incredible,” says Chef Venner. “But in a gorgeous little town like this, I really wanted the kind of place that people could enjoy three or four nights a week. My vision of it is that it needed to be a neighborhood restaurant.”
The more casual, “neighborhood” vibe is, of course, part of a greater philosophical shift that Chef Venner brings to Elm. Core to his new direction for the restaurant is also a movement towards the use of locally grown and produced ingredients. Chef Venner credits his education and early experience as a chef as driving factors in his choice of ingredients.
Supporting Small Farms and Farmers
“I started my training in Colorado where I did an old-school, European-style apprenticeship, where a French chef took me under his wing. Ultimately, he urged me to go work in Napa, and I helped open a restaurant there. And then, really, it was like a whole new world. For instance, I’d never seen a fava bean before! Or there was a guy coming in the backdoor with whole baby lambs, and a different guy is bringing quail in at 8:00 at night, in the middle of dinner service. I never had seen ingredients procured like that or gotten to work with them. And that experience has become instrumental here, too. I really wanted to bring that philosophy to Elm.”
True to that, Chef Venner has made the acquisition of local ingredients a primary focus for Elm. During the growing season, around 70% of all produce comes from local farms within the tri-state area or Massachusetts. Of that number, around 40% comes directly from Connecticut farms. As part of their effort to keep Connecticut produce on the menu all winter, Elm has partnered with local Simpaug Farm to procure as much fall produce as possible and preserve the bounty of summer and fall. Other farms Elm supports include Millstone Farm, Holbrook Farm, Blue Moon Acres, Eckerton Hill Farms, and 7X Ranch.
“I ultimately wanted Elm to be like the restaurants that are in Manhattan or Brooklyn now, where they got rid of the tablecloths, expensive napkins, and these huge staffs and show kitchens, so instead of focusing so strongly on the visceral experience, they could just make good food,” says Chef Venner. Elm’s success at doing this is apparent even on their lunch menu, which they were kind enough to share with Edible Nutmeg. Consistent with Chef Venner’s mission to use as much fresh and local produce as possible, the menu is in a regular state of change, but the dishes Chef Venner served during our visit are emblematic of the depth of style and taste that a diner would enjoy any time of the year.
Customers have an array of choices to start with, including deliciously spicy and heartily seasoned Shishito peppers, or heirloom Indian blue corn tostadas served with avocado. Chef Venner’s pumpkin soup served with chili marshmallows is another local favorite, and he has been kind enough to share that recipe with our readers.
One of their most popular lunch choices is the CT lobster roll, rich with herb-infused lobster and fresh arugula, and served on toasted brioche. With this bounty of flavor, there is no need for the mayonnaise-heavy mix that marks traditional lobster rolls; Chef Venner instead serves his with a sparse, light, lemony mayonnaise and tops it with a hearty slice of bacon.
Of course, if terrestrial fare is more the diner’s inclination, the Amish chicken club is a new-school twist on an old favorite, layered with bacon, sprouts, and a house-made avocado mayonnaise. Their grassfed burger is also a local take on an American classic, set with raclette cheese, kohlrabi, and Russian dressing.
Dessert is not forgotten, even if our camera was. Pastry Chef Kara Koehmstedt’s zeppole, served with maple ice cream and seasonal, house-made jam, is light, crispy, and fluffy, and was so appealing that photographing it was a genuine afterthought.
If you’d like to get lost in a meal yourself, Elm restaurant is open Monday – Friday for lunch (11:30am – 2:30pm), Tuesday – Thursday for dinner (5:30 – 9:30pm), and serves dinner until 10:00pm on Friday & Saturday. Brunch is also available on Saturday & Sunday (11am – 2:30pm).
> Elm Restaurant: 73 Elm Street, New Canaan; 203-920-4994; elmrestaurant.com