Creative Southwestern-inspired cuisine spices up the Darien dining scene
By Mary Kate Hogan
There’s a culinary celeb cooking in our midst, but he’s been grilling, poaching and frying under the radar. Organic gardener, chef and family man, Colin Ambrose is a veteran restaurateur best known for his Hamptons eatery, Estia’s Little Kitchen. The tiny Sag Harbor spot enjoys a cult following for its exceptional brunch, Mexican-inspired menu and über-fresh food, such as a signature “two-hour salad” with greens plucked moments ago from the on-site garden. Calvin Klein and Candice Bergen frequent the low-key restaurant, as do artists, writers and New York chefs, with a crowd that often spills outside to where apple trees and blueberry bushes are growing. Now, Ambrose, who spent some of his teen years in Darien, has brought his fresh formula home to a tucked-away eatery set behind the Post Road. Open less than two years, Estia’s American is catching a buzz with locals who have discovered this trifecta of good eats: a creative Southwest-inspired menu; organic, sustainable fare; and great value.
Not resting on his laurels, Ambrose tweaked his offerings in Darien to cater to the Fairfield County customer. Working with a talented sous chef, he serves breakfast and brunch on weekends (with breakfast items available during lunch on weekdays) as well as nightly dinner and wine specials.
Certain restaurants allow you to feel more like you’re dining at a friend’s home; this forty-five-seat eatery is one of them. The space is warmed by touches of Americana—such as a flag installation by artist Ross Watts made from red, white and blue book spines—and other original art. At night, tablecloths come on, there’s music playing (Spanish on the evening we visited), and glowing lanterns top a half wall that divides two dining areas. On a recent Saturday night the place was filled with a lively crowd by 7 p.m., and some people were getting up to chat with friends at neighboring tables.
The menu blends seasonal specials, American fare and dishes with Southwestern flavors, such as tortilla soup, crab tostadas, hanger steak Azteca and fish tacos. In season, vegetables are sourced right from the Sag Harbor garden as well as Connecticut farms, and the Martori salad we tried, with its mix of arugula, dark greens, cantaloupe, crispy apple, walnuts and blue cheese, sings with flavor. Mini duck tacos are presented on a plate that resembles an artist’s palette with dollops of mole sauce around the edges; the duck is tender and the mini tortilla shells crispy. For mains, we sampled some signature dishes as well as one special from a tempting list that included pheasant and bouillabaisse.
Some risottos can taste heavy and mushy, but Estia’s shrimp risotto is precisely the opposite. It’s laden with chopped veggies (celery, carrots, sweet corn and tomatoes that still have a lovely texture to them), as well as a generous helping of shrimp and a hint of truffle that lends depth to the dish. Our favorite entrée was the tavern chicken (and I rarely order chicken), a moist and delicious pan-roasted breast over a bed of spaghetti squash with baby brussels sprouts. Those brussels sprouts were so perfect that our young daughter was popping them into her mouth like potato chips. We were encouraged by our waitress to order the quail special and it did not disappoint; the flavorful bird served over wild rice with fresh cranberries and parsley with a side of acorn squash paired beautifully with the night’s fruit-forward syrah, $8 by the glass.
Organic ingredients typically come at a premium, but Ambrose focuses on delivering reasonably priced meals. For instance, every night between 5 and 6:30 p.m., there’s a $28 prix fixe that includes a soup or salad, entrée and dessert. To shake up your week, check out Taco Tuesdays, when the varieties include fish, lobster, duck, turkey and short rib, served with salad for $10; pitchers of margaritas are $20. On Monday burger nights, choose veggie, turkey, short rib-stuffed cheeseburger and other takes for $10 with special wines at $20 a bottle.
On weekends, you can indulge in a breakfast unlike any other in our area. Popular dishes include the hearty “bowls” like A’s Pop (also available for lunch) with roasted chicken steeped in chili sauce, organic red quinoa, egg whites, veggies and avocado, and Happy Jack’s Breakfast Burrito (named for the owner of Ernie’s in Darien) which rolls scrambled eggs, Andouille sausage, peppers, onions and cheese into a tortilla. For a lighter start, try the mixed berry smoothie. No matter what time of day you eat here, you’re certain to taste something fresh.