CHESTER — At the end of a restaurant meal, how often have you asked to take home your leftover bread and butter?
It was the first time for me at Grano Arso in Chester last Tuesday night where I hovered over a side plate of house-cultured butter and bread all the way through a six-course tasting menu, until dessert. I even asked for more butter midway through.
As Julia — my cohort and co-taster — said, it all started with the bread and butter.
But we were there for the tasting menu, six courses, $75. And all a surprise, Julia said.
The waiter double-checked to make sure we were ready for it. “Our chef likes to have fun.” We nodded.
Chef Joel Gargano, who co-owns Grano Arso, a phrase that means “burnt wheat,” with his wife, Lani Gargano, said his philosophy of the tasting menu is a culinary journey that represents the pinnacle of flavor created from ingredients from multiple sources.
“When I think of how to guide a guest through a meal and when we put created the tasting menu, I try to put things together that would make sense in a progression of courses but also at the same time builds in flavor as it goes,” he said. “For us being a restaurant that specializes in pasta, of course, and specializing in house-made products and artisanal products, but also sourcing a lot of things locally, everything we put on the menu we want to be super proud of.”
Some ingredients like parmigiano reggiano and the speck are best imported from Italy, but he also tries to showcase products that are made in-house and locally-sourced
“The butter we make in-house from Connecticut Dairy. The bread we produce every single day and it’s made out of 100% New England grain and it’s milled fresh and a portion of that we mill in-house as well — the rye berries, and we actually pre-toast them and add them to the Grano Arso flour.”
And so it began. First an amuse bouche, an extra “bite,” a gift from the chef — a glistening, rectangular fried potato torta, on its side, sprinkled with shaved smoked ricotta — our impressions differed.
It’s like a bar french fry in a fancy package, said Julia, who is a fan of french-fried potatoes. The delicate smoked ricotta — prepared in-house — and the basic potato torta was a mismatch for me, but then I acknowledge I’m not a fan of fries.
The first course was speck — a type of smoked prosciutto — with ricotta, aged balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, and happily, more bread.
Julia knew what to do and spread the ricotta on the bread and topped it with speck, creating an open-faced sandwich. I tried to eat the speck with a knife and fork, which I quickly realized was useless, as I watched Julia eating with gusto. Soon I had made my own sandwiches, and used my bread to sop up the remaining oil and vinegar.
With a tasting menu like this it helped that we were not squeezed into a typical two-person table, and there was plenty of room for extra plates, extra utensils, water and elbows. Even on a busy Tuesday night, with several large parties nearby, the noise level was low enough that Julia and I talked easily.
After the speck came gnocchi and a parade carbs. The potato gnocchi were tossed with fresh and pureed sugar snap peas from Wellstone Farm in Higganum and a sprinkle of pecorino romano. The bright fresh flavor of the peas brought lightness to the gnocchi.
At this point, it was hard to pace ourselves. Julia ate every bite of the gnocchi — not thinking about all the was still to come, she said. I picked out the crunchy peas, that burst with flavor, but set aside a few gnocchi at the bottom of the bowl. We both agreed that the ricotta would have been spectacular with this course.
Next was hand-rolled pasta, garganelli Grano Arso. It is made from toasted rye from Four Star Farm and was firmer and darker than wheat or gnocchi. From the light fresh tastes of the snap peas this course was weightier and richer. The garganelli was served with braised lamb shank and braised escarole also from Wellstone Farm in Hingham, Massachusetts. Parmesan and oil came with this dish as well.
After gnocchi, pasta, and of course bread, our fourth dish was fish — a happy change of pace — Connecticut flounder with a crust of toasted bread crumbs and fennel pollen, and mussels (which Julia described as little butter bombs in her mouth), curly endive, and an absinthe beurre blanc and roasted fennel puree.
At this point we were feeling overwhelmed. Julia said she couldn’t take another bite.
But then the duck arrived, and it was beautiful. Pan-seared and sourced from Jurgielewicz Farm in Shartlesville, Penn., it came with asparagus and a little butter. It was by far the best thing we ate all night — and despite ourselves — we ate like it was a first course.
When pressed, Gargano revealed a few of his cooking secrets that brought out the flavor of the duck.
“Sometimes in restaurants, of course we have to prepare foods for many guests that typically always want to eat at the same time,” he laughed. “So, restaurants will try really hard to prep in advance but there are certain things you can’t cook in advance.
He said that at Grano Arso, when you’re about to eat a protein dish, “that’s when your meat or fish touches the pan.”
That freshness is part of his culinary philosophy, he said.
“If you treat everything that way and cook as we say in the kitchen ‘à la minute’ then the food will come out fresh and there’s nothing to hide,” he said. “Your duck literally came out of the pan, rested for two minutes and then I sliced it for you and that’s I think what makes it extra-juicy and makes it sing because it didn’t sit around for four hours before you ate it.”
The meal ended with a raspberry sorbet and strawberries from Scott’s Farm, the berries infused with Negroni, Gargano’s favorite cocktail. Homemade cookie crumbs were sprinked over the berries and the whole sundae was topped with whipped cream spiced with nutmeg, allspice and cloves.
As we left the restaurant, we noticed that somehow the place had emptied out and we’d been there for three hours. Julia took home half of her duck portion and I carried my take-out container of bread and butter, knowing what my next morning’s breakfast would be.