Cool Weather and Comfort Food in Chester, CT

We stopped into River Tavern in Chester early the other night for dinner, taking a corner table for two in the back dining room by the window. Staff was still sitting at the bar. Across the room, chef-owner Jonathan Rapp was maneuvering pans alone in the tiny open kitchen.

After almost twenty years as one of the reliably best places to eat in southeast Connecticut, we didn’t really arrive expecting, or even wanting, surprises. And I have to admit that increasingly when I eat there – five times in the last year — I find myself picking from quiet and unassuming corners of a menu given over to an eclectic mix of consistently well-prepared East Asian, Latin and Italian inflected dishes.

It would be a shame on a first visit to order the hamburger – last night, Beriah Lewis beef, with local tomato relish, bacon, Bel Paese and jalapeño aioli ($16) – but Rapp just may turn out the best hamburger in Connecticut east of New Haven.

And with the weather cooling, evenings early, and the holidays approaching, a night out at River Tavern offers the easy comfort of a generous hand-formed meatloaf made from local beef and pork, with mashed potatoes, braised chard and lardons, and an heirloom tomato cream sauce ($24). The meat is rich with grated hard cheese. It is excellent.

Paired with a bottle of 2017 Nebbiolo Paolo Scavino, perfumed and approachable with soft tannins and a nose of red raspberries – a good value at $48 – it’s a perfect and timely escape from the house and kitchen.

The baked-to-order date pudding – long a favorite on the menu — arrived with crispy browned edges, a caramel rum sauce and whipped cream, and combined all the pleasures of a steamed pudding and gingerbread ($12).

At that point it was a little too much food, but I found myself wondering if we had shared a few dishes whether we could have also ordered a first course, undeterred by the portion sizes and the peculiar challenge of drawing an obvious line from first course to mains on Rapp’s menu.  Another time. It was the happiest I’ve left a restaurant in the region in months.

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