Since Cocotte opened last June on Main Street in Old Saybrook, chef Jeffrey DeFrancesco has begun turning out some of the least pretentious, best food east of New Haven from a tiny kitchen with a young understudy, while his French wife Isabelle works the front of the house (apart from her other job) with a parttime staff of servers and an ethic that is as uncompromising as it is convivial.
“The other side of French food is a very communal thing,” Isabelle, the more voluble of the two, explained to me the other day. “Your favorite restaurant – it’s usually a bistro or something like that, and the boss, he knows what you like. You come in in the morning, and your espresso is on the counter with your baguette or your croissant, because he knows what you want. And that’s the kind of experience we would like to have, to acknowledge people.”
Really not so different from why locals of all sorts overfill the parking lots of places like Coffees Country Market in Old Lyme on weekends to buy a cup of coffee, to greet familiar faces, and pick up the morning paper – a small-town New England tradition – except at Cocotte, the omelet is prepared in the French way, here with mushrooms, gruyere, or unadorned. And it is very, very good.
As the two emerge from COVID, hire staff and hope for an okay from the town to serve beer and wine – a particularly heavy lift in Old Saybrook — the menu at Cocotte remains limited to breakfast and lunch, special dinners, BYOB, gelato and pastries.
“Dinners are on the horizon for us, because the people are here. The people are coming. We want to do it,” said Jeffrey.
“….the exciting part of cooking,” said Isabelle, “because you can create your own. You know, that’s where you can express yourself. Because when you do an omelet, you express your technique, and your savoir-faire.”
He is excited to cook fish.
She is particularly proud of his jus and coulis – elements of a contemporary French style of cooking that highlights the essence of an ingredient, a cut of pork or fresh-picked fruit.
After training at the International Culinary Center in New York (founded originally as The French Culinary Institute), Jeffrey worked in the kitchens of Tom Colicchio at Craft and Jean-Georges Vongerichten at the Inn at Pound Ridge – an education that in his case appears to favor the simplicity of Colicchio and the post-colonial French of Vongerichten.
Isabelle, whose father is Pied-Noir – he was born in Morocco and moved to France at the age of 27 – describes a childhood of couscous on Sunday, tagine, always cumin with lamb, and the cooking of Brittany – local seafood, buckwheat galettes. Her mother made gratin dauphinois.
In the meantime, they plan to continue with brunch from Thursday to Sunday, extending to Wednesday by the summer, to bring in additional revenue and hire staff for dinner service, and to bring in a pastry chef.
For the time being, at least, we’ll content ourselves with the fact that no one serves a better breakfast or brunch anywhere in the region.