Stone Row Kitchen + Bar sits on Main Street Willimantic high on a bank with the river to its back in a building once used to house thread mill workers. The place has good bones. It’s spacious and resonant of history. That it’s a half-hour drive off any major highway adds to the appeal.
The drive through rolling farm country drops you into a re-percolating downtown Willimantic that owes something to Stone Row’s owner, Andy Gütt.
Stone Row offers cheese and meat boards, oysters, small plates, sandwiches, and a few choice entrees and desserts — in what the menu describes as a “low key, high vibe” setting.
The kitchen and bar, which was recently named Windham County Restaurant of the Year, is precise, inventive, and persuasive in its attention their art.
A Roasted Beet Salad on a recent visit was a classic winter dish, tossed with grapefruit, fried almonds and mint. A powder of olive oil was piled like fashion-shoot eyeshadow along a row of beet and grapefruit.
Owner Andy Gütt is known for his work sourcing good local ingredients from farmers, fishermen and foragers, in spaces that support art and offer equitable worker pay. In 2010, he opened the well-regarded Cafemantic, which became a major force in the rejuvenation of Willimantic.
With the first wave of the pandemic Gütt reinvented himself, re-opening Cafemantic as Stone Row Kitchen & Bar.
Executive chef Tyler May has made a career in New England and New York kitchens, including wd~50, Wylie Dufresne’s lost ode to molecular gastronomy on Manhattan’s Lower East Side — the sort of playful experimentation that infuses May’s own work at Stone Row Kitchen.
The flavors are vivid. Sweet? BAM. Salty? BAM. Sour? BAM.
May admits his fondness for brightness. “I love pickling, I love vinegar, I love the brightness in dishes, the vinegar touch. One day I just pickled everything in the kitchen. I pickled apples, I pickled squash, I pickled peanuts.”
Those peanuts were there — with a little bit of heat in them — in an iteration of Stonington Scallops the night I visited. Seared and creamy in the inside, the scallops offered a canvas for the earthiness of spiced apple chutney and maple celery root puree. The peanuts? I’m not sure what I thought of them, but I’m glad they were in there. As May later said to me, “they still taste like peanuts, but you have that brightness note with the celery root, a good match.”
Grace Spruance leads the bar service, with signature and seasonal cocktails. A sans-alcohol “Ginger Paloma” set the tone: fresh ginger, blood orange, grapefruit and Seedlip Grove non-alcoholic spice liqueur — New England seasonal, with a nod toward Southern sunshine. Spruance’s “Christmas in Connecticut” combines vodka, cranberry and pomegranate liqueur, pine essence, Lillet Blanc and lemon.
The menu at Stone Row is both work-a-day and playful.
I tried fresh and roasted oysters, Brussels sprouts in a sweet fish vinaigrette, chicken wings in a duck fat, sesame-citrus glaze, and pork belly with daikon radish and cucumbers in a chili-soy vinaigrette.
The entire menu shifts through the seasons. Even signature dishes can change weekly, depending on what’s available. But what I liked most about the menu was its sense of invitation — how it made me want to stay and have a conversation with the chefs, ask them questions, talk about food, risk-taking, art-making, a sense of place, space, and memory
A meal at Stone Row Kitchen + Bar goes a very long way.