I’m a very fortunate guy. I fully realize that. I have been lucky enough to enjoy many a fine meal around the world. Good food is a priority to me and I try to engage in experiencing great food as much as I can, given relative restraints of time and finances. I try to get to visit as many of the chefs, restaurants and locations that most intrigue me, but still, I wind up missing many experiences that I would prefer not to, just because, for whatever reasons, I could not make it to those places in time. I know, boohoo for me. That is not meant to be a whine, just a statement of fact. There are simply to many places and people of interest given my resources. I recently came very close to missing an experience, relatively in my back yard, that I had had my eye on for some time. Community Table in Washington Connecticut, with chef Joel Viehland, is one I had been jonesing about, but due to it’s off the beaten track (for me) location in Northwest Connecticut, I had never been able to find the right time to visit. It was too far from home and would require an overnight stay. My attitude changed once I discovered that Chef Viehland would be leaving the restaurant by the middle of this month. I had some time off and friends to go with. There would never be a better time, so I made it happen. I’m glad that I did.
Speaking as someone who lives in a generally rural environment with plenty of nearby farms and within the wilderness of the Adirondack State Park (NY), Washington, Connecticut is not a straightforward place to travel to, much less so than even where I live. The closest interstate highway is I-84, but a winding jaunt through some pricey real estate, is required before alighting at the restaurant. I came through back roads from Putnam County, NY, a beautiful, though time-consuming (almost an hour to cover approximately 30 miles) drive through rich farmland, woods, a covered bridge and exclusive estates. On a beautiful evening such as we had, the scenic journey to the restaurant, contributed to the positive vibe of the evening.
The website of Community Table states, “our mission is to serve our community exciting and flavorful dishes, sustainably sourced and locally procured, in a vibrant and welcoming atmosphere” – aka “farm-to-table” dining. The space of the restaurant succeeds brilliantly at capturing the feeling of that mission. While not exactly rustic, the space is airy and warm with an understated elegance that one would expect to find in a rural area as well off as northwestern Connecticut. The restaurant is divided into three different dining rooms, making the experience feel smaller and cozier than the total space would suggest.
The cocktail menu was quite intriguing with a number of possibilities calling my name. I had come with my friends, Gerry Dawes and his fiancée, and Gerry had brought a few of his Spanish wines to share. Between wanting to try some of those (wines I did not have the opportunity to sample in Spain) and having a bit of a drive, I needed to severely limit my alcohol intake to just taking a few tastes. Still, I couldn’t pass up tasting at least one of the cocktails. The winner of my attention was a restaurant original called “Leatherman.” Consisting of Rye Whiskey, Swedish Punsch, smoked apricot and bitters, it was described on the menu as “A stirred spiritous endeavor, with a flavor profile indicative of the name. Served over our long lasting king-cut ice cube.” A fan of stirred cocktails and Rye, I was curious about the other ingredients and the “king-cut ice cube.” The flavor had a unique tang that was just sweet enough and unlike any other cocktail that I’ve had with the Rye rounded out by rummy and funky cherry notes from the Punsch. As much as I liked the cocktail, I was slightly disappointed by the ice. At a place that appears to take pride in the small details that make a difference, the cube was large and well cut, but not clear. The fact that this turned out to be my most significant criticism of our experience, should put that experience in good perspective.
First out was bread and butter, the bread warm and crusty and the butter, soft and creamy. I rarely waste calories and carbs on bread any more, but this was too wonderful to pass up and thanks to a low starting blood sugar, enjoyed two slices.
The menu was built for a classic three course meal of appetizers, entrées and desserts. We shared an appetizer for the table and ordered one each of our own. The shared appetizer was burrata with english pea and mint verde sauce. Burrata has apparently become the cheese du jour of late and no wonder, as its creaminess and flavor profile is adaptable to any number of situations. Viehland chose to provide it with fresh vegetal and herbal notes with less sweetness than I would have guessed given the presence of the peas. The combination proved bright, balanced and satisfying.
Two of us had ordered the grilled RI squid with squid ink, asparagus, romesco and green almonds and it was a good thing that we had. This was a fabulous dish with flavors and balance that reminded us of the best of Spain. The romesco and the grilled squid were right out of the Spanish playbook, as were the green almonds, but each component was perfectly rendered and the balance of the total – the sweet and char of the squid, the complex earthiness of the romesco, the slight bitterness of the almonds and the rich vegetal tones of the asparagus – blended in perfect harmony, with me eagerly anticipating my next bite as the previous one was finished. Grilled squid can be sublime, but that is quite difficult to achieve and it is easy to ruin. This grilled squid was about as good as it gets.
In the meantime, Gerry had ordered the smoked potatoes with black garlic and caper-anchovy aioli. The potatoes had been steamed, cold smoked, then fried. Crisp outside and silky inside, the texture was dynamite, while the flavors burst brilliantly. This was a great example of humble ingredients ascending to great heights. It was reminiscent of a ramped up patatas bravas.
Both the squid and the potatoes came out swinging with bold flavors and textural audacity, while the burrata was more subtle. so was my main course, Halibut with spring garlic, English peas, carrots, fava beans and lemon herb nage. The halibut was flaky, but moist and fresh flavored. The vegetables provided a spring symphony that played in harmony with the fish. Nothing was overpowering. The result was a display of finesse that complemented the earlier shows of power.
Washing down these delightful dishes were Gerry’s Spanish wines, principally those from Madai in Bierzo in Castilla y Leon. The Godello was crisp, low in alcohol and laced with green apple fruit that paired perfectly with the appetizers. A Madai Mencia had the finesse and gentleness to pair exquisitely with the seafood each of us had as our main courses.
I had intended to have cheese in lieu of dessert at the end of our meal, but we were amongst the last ones at the restaurant and got into a conversation with Chef Viehland and I forgot to ask for it, declining an offer of dessert. It was quite apparent that the Milwaukee, Wisconsin raised, German heritage, Chef Viehland, who has a long background working in places like NYC with Tom Colicchio at Gramercy Tavern, and Katy Sparks at Quilty’s: New Orleans with Scott Boswell at Stella! and Susan Spicer at Bayona and an extended stint during the early days of noma, has serious cooking skills and talent. He was leaving the restaurant to take a bit of a hiatus before gearing up with some investors to open his own restaurant(s). Given that this was the last opportunity that I would have to try his food at this lovely restaurant, I was sorry that I hadn’t made it there previously, but glad that I made it when I did. Not only will I keep an eye out for Viehland’s next venture(s), I won’t hesitate to try them early in their life spans. I will also likely return to Community table, where Viehland’s former sous chef, Danish born Marcell Davidsen, has been named as his replacement. The owners of Community table appear to care about putting out a great product. Both the structure of the restaurant and the quality of their staff speak to that. Now, if only it were just a tad easier to get to!