NEW HAVEN — The warmth of the room hits you when you open the door. Wood paneling and black tufted leather banquettes. A bar running across the back of the snug space. Small tables. A young crowd in twos and threes casually dressed, mostly with mixed drinks. Not by accident, Tavern on State takes its cues from a neighborhood place in New York or Boston dating to the ‘70s that you might have walked by a dozen times. Someplace to go after work or to meet a date, have a drink and a bite to eat.
“I really want it to live up to the old-school tavern — not a dive bar — a place that will sustain you foodwise, drinkwise, and socially,” Emily Mingrone, co-owner and chef of Tavern on State, told me as we sat a table in the corner on a Tuesday at 5 in late November.
“You’re going to come here with your friends or family or loved ones, whoever, and feel comfortable and intimate and relax. We really made an effort from the beginning to have no pretension.”
If you haven’t already heard, Mingrone is a young rockstar. Tavern on State, which she opened in 2019 with co-owner Shane McGowan, is her first restaurant. In 2021 she was named chef of the year by the Connecticut Restaurant Association.
What Mingrone does better perhaps than anyone else in the state is cook serious food in a style, at a price point, and in a setting that truly allows all kinds of people to take part.
“I try and keep it lighthearted,” Mingrone admitted, “because how can you really enjoy a good meal if you are uptight?.. Like you’ve got to put your napkin on your lap. So, I keep the music loud and the lights low and people have just enjoyed it like it’s your own little thing.”
At 50, for nearly an hour, I am the oldest person in the room.
There are nearly two dozen fanciful mixed drinks on the menu – McGowan runs the bar program. But Tavern isn’t a bar. And there doesn’t really appear to be a snack or finger food if I was ordering a drink to start or to sit at the bar.
Instead, Mingrone has created a tight menu of composed salads and vegetable dishes, a few umami-rich mains, a few burgers. Popovers to start. Homespun desserts by Kate Donato to finish. Donato was until recently the head baker at Scratch Baking in Milford.
A white endive salad with orange segments, fermented chili, miso labne – a thick Middle Eastern yoghurt – and mint, sets the pace.
The salad is a masterclass in composed balance — sour, sweet, bitter, savory, with crunch, and herb leaf to perfume and brighten — that draws freely of each from Europe, Near and Far East. Endive tossed in the sour fermented funkiness of the chili, evident in the first bites, mellows with the milky lactic tartness of the last.
Black mission figs are brûléed to a crackle, with a shave of lardo, crushed pistachio and pistachio vinaigrette.
Lamb tartar, scooped up with pickled carrot, nigella seed and harissa labne onto crispy papadum is another highlight landing somewhere between old New York and Tunisia.
A few of these lighter dishes with popovers to start, a glass of wine, and you have a perfect dinner for two.
Or you can dive deeper and order one or two of Mingrone’s cozy mains.
Pan-roasted coppa steak – a cut of pork from the neck and shoulder – with a stuffing of pumpernickel and served with braised cabbage in pork glacé, is another standout dish, less composed, more unctuous umami goodness. It’s one of the few dishes, Mingrone said, where the tiny back kitchen takes advantage of technology – in this case sous vide.
The effect is a counterpoint to the starters that is carried by a variety of dishes at the bottom of the menu, like oyster mushrooms and pomme purée with a madeira gravy that tastes straight out of Escoffier, and tête de cochon – rich shreds of pork, breaded and fried with greens and mustard in another collagen-rich broth of pork braise.
With the prices of most of these dishes – often enough for three or four to share – hovering around 20 dollars, the menu offers the opportunity to eat a half-dozen dishes with friends at a very reasonable cost. That’s a remarkable bargain, actually, and a great way for young people on limited budgets to try a level of cooking that’s rare in Connecticut.
Or you could just have the burger and your choice of one of several beers. It’s an unapologetic ode to McDonalds, a confection of a hamburger, with a loose grind of beef from Tavern’s next-door butcher, Provisions on State. And you’d feel comfortable. It’s clear that Mingrone wants her restaurant to be enjoyed by everybody.
That’s also reflected in the kitchen and service. With so many dishes in so small a space, even packed, the kitchen turns out dishes at a perfect pace. And the service is a highpoint. The staff is friendly, smart, attentive and inobtrusive – hitting that right balance of casual and welcoming.
But Tavern on State still has room for growth.
The wine list in particular feels a bit like a missed opportunity and a side note, given the quality of the kitchen, lacking that same sweet spot that suffuses the operation otherwise. And the desserts produced by Donato, a recent addition, don’t yet feel on the same page as the rest of the kitchen.
In fact, given two recent visits, it appears that the drinks, food and desserts for the most part exist on separate islands… but good ones.
All things said? A remarkable showing by one of the most exciting chefs in Connecticut.