James O'Shea and Charles Kafferman are having a pre-spring fling of the culinary variety. They've turned the lights down low and the charm up high, and with Edith Piaf crooning in the background on a recent Sunday evening, there's no question seduction is in the air.
The setting, of course, is the venerable West Street Grill, now in its 19th year overlooking the historic green in Litchfield. Twice a week, on Thursday and Sunday evenings, its owners are swapping their traditional New American menu for French bistro fare-with a touch of trattoria élan tossed in-served with flair and at very appealing prices.
Perhaps this is their way of looking at the failing economy through rose colored glasses, but the attraction appears to be mutual, if you judge by the customers who are returning to West Street, night after night.
The grill is not the only restaurant in the area to offer its customers incentives these days, of course. Just look around at all the weekday prix fixe menus. But the allure at West Street goes far beyond the reduced prices.
What a seasonal thrill it is to park the car and stroll down a winter-wonderland West Street, drinking in the chilly air and admiring a snow-kissed landscape, before entering a warm haven of stylish sophistication and food that remains among the best in the region and Connecticut at large.
Looking around, once you're ensconced at a well-appointed table in the restaurant that put the region on the culinary map, it's easy to feel transported-either to Paris in the case of the bistro nights, or just to a sparkling, out-of-the-ordinary locale on any other evening.
The lights are low, the cocktails are tempting, the wine list is long, deep and distinguished, the service is impeccable, the owners are irrepressible and obsessive about excellence, the atmosphere is clubby and certainly bistro-ish and the walls are adorned both with mirrors for guest-gazing and artwork. At the moment, a suite of internationally-themed photos exude a rich diversity through colors that complement the subtle fireworks in the food.
Appetizers on bistro nights include the Soup de Poisson, a rich red base of tomato and red pepper blended with tender shrimp, cod and more, and accented by roasted fennel, crusty peasant crostini and a classic rouille, which derives its heat from a dash of chili pepper.
This rich, beautiful soup is just $9, and with entrees priced very kindly between $16 and $21, the urge to splurge a bit on wine might be indulged. In fact, the soup pairs wonderfully with a stellar 2005 white Burgundy, the Louis Latour Chassagne Montrachet.
The next starter on an impromptu tasting menu prepared expertly by chef James Cosgriff heats things up even more with a delicate fried Bluepoint oyster, freshly shucked and lightly breaded in panko. It is a morsel made only more delicious by the sauces punctuating the plate-celeriac remoulade, parsley pesto and balsamic reduction. ($10)
Also from the sea, and riffing on the peasant food theme that makes bistros so seductive, is another starter, the Beignets de Brandade de Morue, the classic puff of subtly salty passion that marries salt cod with potatoes in a light delight.
A refreshing pause comes in the form of a roasted red and golden beet salad, served before the arrival of the main course, grilled flat iron steak with caramelized shallots, a green peppercorn demiglace and pommes frites with a gorgeously lush aioli for dipping. The staff can recommend any number of good to great red wines to pair with the entrees, and indulging might mean choosing a 2003 Chateau Lafon-Rochet, a Saint Estephe with an outrageous "nose" that is drinking beautifully.
The steak frites entrée checks in at a very affordable $21, and another guest could be heard raving about the moules frites, or steamed Prince Edward Island mussels with garlic, shallots, white wine, tomato and fresh basil, served with pomme frites and aioli. That bistro night entrée is a mere $16.
Pan seared Idaho brook trout checks in at $19, and as the lovely evening drew to a close, Mr. O'Shea could be seen enjoying fresh spaghetti with Italian meatballs-with roasted garlic, fresh parsley, grana padano and a rich Pomodoro sauce. That entree is also $19.
The seduction of the new, affordable bistro nights is completed with the arrival of a chocolate ganache tart, a key lime tart and a trio of house-made sorbets. Either of the tarts, depending on your taste, serves as a decadent denouement, and the coconut sorbet, in particular, was an exotic touch.
Mr. O'Shea and Mr. Kafferman have never made a secret of the fact that riding out January and February amid cold, snowy winters in Litchfield can be challenging. On the cusp of their second decade at the West Street Grill, the bistro night response is perfect-and venturing out on otherwise forbidding nights for a great meal in a great setting is richly rewarding.
For more information or reservations, call the West Street Grill at 860-567-3885.