Arethusa Al Tavolo: From A Dairy To Dining Extraordinaire
Colorado lamb tartare tenderloin
By Jacque Lynn Schiller
By now, you’ve no doubt heard the backstory of Arethusa al Tavolo, or at least of the fashionable names behind the restaurant’s inception. If not, a quick primer: Partners in business and life, George Malkemus and Anthony Yurgaitis of Manolo Blahnik shoes fame bought a farm near their home in Litchfield, Conn. Over the course of the next decade, the dairy and vat-pasteurized milk business prospered, in 2012 expanding into a creamery and retail space housed in the Bantam firehouse, renovated by the duo, of course. Apparently the stylish team likes to keep busy, and a restaurant and wine bar opened the following year, located next to what once was the Village General Store.
What’s often left out of the tale, however, is the attention to detail and love of things done well that is evidenced in all endeavors under the Arethusa name. From the pristine barn stalls of the dairy farm to the crisp tablecloths and large format, playful pictures of the “ladies” of Arethusa (beautiful bovines) that welcome you in the dining room, a dedication to quality and appreciation of locale are always on display.
Quartet of Arethusa Farm deviled eggs
This proclivity towards excellence extends to the oft-changing, Progressive American menu. Chef Dan Magill is certainly reveling in the area’s bounty. Having fun with nearby food finds is often the lost ingredient when moving from farm to plate. Not here. Chef Magill inventively showcases both produce and protein, and brilliantly utilizes the incredible resource that is Arethusa’s dairy goods.
The farm is the exclusive purveyor of all things dairy at the restaurant. Their milk products pop up frequently and in the most delectable of ways, starting with a bite-sized cheese curd arancini as amuse bouche and an appetizer special of thin flatbread with truffled ricotta and farm cheese, foraged mushrooms and caramelized onions, a wonder of flavors. Other “Beginnings” of note are local squash blossoms in a delicate tempura crust and filled with romesco and farmer’s cheese. Served with ratatouille, basil aioli and tomato jam ($16), a salad is something we recommend you do not forego here. The local strawberries, watermelon and black mission figs with house-made ricotta, arugula and crisp prosciutto is delicious and remarkably light.
For those looking for a bit more heft, a long-running favorite is the quartet of Arethusa Farm deviled eggs. Chef Magill elevates a standard by incorporating surprising – and rich – complements such as foie gras, smoked potato-bacon and jumbo lump crab. If you’re a table of four, prepare to place more than one order or fight for a taste of each half. All of the first courses are actually quite substantial, with lobster and avocado salad or the amazing Arethusa Farm dairy cheese plate solid choices should you want a “small bite” while enjoying a drink at the bar.
And while we’re sidled up, we must make mention of Brian Khoo’s cocktail program. A considered list of classic cocktails concocted with a hat tip to summer, drinks such as The Huckleberry Sunrise, a punch made with 44° North Huckleberry Vodka, Sauza Blue Tequila, plus the juices of orange, grapefruit and lime sounds like an intriguing choice for those wishing to extend the season. So too the Pavan, Prosecco and passionfruit found in the bubbly Villa Vizcaya. Beer and cider selections are abbreviated but trustworthy (think Palm and Dog Fish Head) while the wine selection is a bit more robust. More than 30 wines are available at any given time, with a few tucked safely away in the temperature-controlled Cruvinet system.
Back to the food, and onto the Mains, with a stop in between for the breadbasket – housemade ciabatta with herbed butter sprinkled with sea salt. Someone in the kitchen knows a good thing when presented with it, and the gifts of Arethusa dairy just keep on giving. Now, onto the entrees. My only objection to an otherwise stellar dining experience is that sometimes there seems to be just too much happening with a dish. The desire to use every seasonal ingredient I’m sure is only heightened when you have such amazing purveyors and produce at hand, but dishes such as braised artichoke filled with matignon and foraged mushrooms ($17) suffers slightly from the addition of Tapping Reeve cheese, pickled lentils, sunchokes and tomato fondue. Any of these elements on their own is a standout, but eaten all together, some of the flavors get lost. Still, points for the pickled lentils.
More harmonious plates were presented in the hibiscus dusted Pekin – no g – duck breast with farro ($32) and the pan-seared diver scallops with broccoli, bacon, almonds, sultanas and verjus nage. The more straightforward the recipe, the more unusual ingredients are highlighted and we respect the chef for truly creating signature dishes.
That enthusiasm applies to the dining room itself, bustling with animated servers and tables full of diners talking excitedly between bites. Mind you, we visited on a weekend night so the energy was high. Brunch is a more relaxing affair, but I must admit to enjoying being in the midst of people enjoying themselves, so I don’t mind a bit of din. It lends a celebratory atmosphere to an evening.
As does dessert, and Pastry Chef James Arena keeps you in a party mood with decadent treats like peaches ‘n’ cream tres leche and a chocolate tasting of a mocha hazelnut brownie “ice cream bar,” malted milk chocolate Luxardo cherry trifle and a warm chocolate beignet with Valhona chocolate sauce. I would have been happy with just the latter. The trio made me ecstatic. All desserts are priced at $12 and if you can actually keep your temptation in check, for good measure you still may want to take home a pint of ice cream made on premises next door.
And lest you think that Mr. Malkemus and Mr. Yurgaitis have completed their renaissance of this little strip of Bantam, plans are underway to open a breakfast and lunch spot across the street from the restaurant and creamery.
Arethusa al Tavolo
828 Bantam Road, Bantam, CT
Saturday and Sunday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Wednesday and Thursday 5:30-9 p.m.
Friday and Saturday 5:30-10 p.m.
Sunday 5-8:30 p.m.