- FUN FEATURES
Having grown up in a predominantly Italian family (mother's side) where any meal had the chance to make or break the day based on its quality, I believe I have a pretty good handle on food.
No, I couldn't explain in detail the finer points of culinary technique, nor will I ever be in the running to be a judge on The Iron Chef, waxing poetic about the different uses of foie gras.
However, I'm also not someone who thinks good food begins at the drive-thru window and ends in my microwave.
I reside smack dab in the middle of those two extremes, where I believe the majority of us food lovers live. I know good food. I know when someone has an artist's touch with flavor, and when someone is throwing together recipes ripped from the pages of “How To Be A Chef....For Dummies.” I know when something works and when it doesn't.
And that's why I keep going back to Olde School Saloon & Bistro in New Haven.
Located at 418 State Street, next to WTNH Channel 8, Olde School might seem somewhat out of the way, a little disconnected from the center of the city, but its food demands that you seek it out (besides, New Haven isn't big enough for anything to truly be “out of the way,” right?).
Opened in 2010, the name says it all.
On one side sits the saloon, a small, welcoming bar area that sticks proudly to its name “old school.” Behind the bar is a vintage cash register, it's rings reminiscent of a time long before computer screens. Next to that is an old 1946-era cooler, refurbished by the restaurant's owner, Jeff Arnold, and home to several different beers.
The rest of the space is outfitted with a unique décor that celebrates music and the region. The walls are filled with framed record covers, from Bob Dylan to Frank Sinatra. The table tops have old maps of New Haven, used ticket stubs to select concerts, and a variety of pictures, ripped from the pages of favorite magazines, set inside the transparent surface.
Keeping with the “old school” musical theme, an eight-track player sits in one corner, happily belting out classic tunes in that unique sound, one that has been replaced over time by everything from CDs to MP3 players.
On the other side is the bistro. While there isn't a tremendous amount of square footage in the dining area, the place can seat a good number of patrons, yet hungry customers never feel uncomfortable. Your table is your own.
This area has a more classic, elegant ambiance, with mirrors and paintings hanging from brightly-colored walls, and the wait staff is knowledgeable and attentive without being overbearing.
Yet, while the atmosphere is inviting, the food is the star of the show.
The menu has something for everyone, from your standard shrimp cocktail appetizer and filet mignon, topped with Gorgonzola cheese entree, to escargot baked in garlic and butter appetizer and duck breast cooked with fava beans and smoked corn succotash. Seasonal specials are always available.
My latest trip to this hidden gem came on Mother's Day earlier this month. The menu was limited (common for most restaurants on such a busy day) but there were plenty of interesting choices from which to choose.
Arnold is a trained chef, obviously skilled and imaginative. The few times I have been to the restaurant, I have noticed that he seems equally adept at providing good pub food (wings, burgers, ribs) to those looking to compliment a few beers in the saloon, as he is providing an upscale meal in the bistro area, all at affordable prices (appetizers range from $7 to $14, while entrees from $16 to $26).
On this day, I decided to start out with the stuffed mushrooms, a house specialty. What makes this appetizer so unique is that the portobello mushrooms are stuffed with a homemade crabmeat mixed with cream cheese, topped with breadcrumbs, and served right out of the oven. The creamy filling just oozes with flavor.
For the entree I chose the veal, which was cooked perfectly, tender in the middle, breaded lightly, and served in what tasted like a lemon-infused sauce, capers, sun-dried tomatoes, and mushrooms. The combination was both light yet very filling, and while I am not usually a fan of sauces with a lemon taste, this was far from overpowering.
The wine was excellent and when our waitress offered a bottle, we left it to her to come up with the right match for our dinners (a good Chianti was the choice). As someone who knows a bit about wine, but not enough to mix and match appropriately, having someone willing to make the right choice was a nice touch (the regular menu also offers wine suggestions with several of the meals).
Another nice twist to the day was the addition of Angelo Ruggiero, a local singer who specializes in classic crooner songs, from Dean Martin to Tom Jones to Frank Sinatra, as well as tunes from the 1950s and 60s. At first I was worried that Ruggiero would be overpowering during the dinner. I didn't want to have to scream to have a conversation. Yet, Ruggiero's performance was a perfect addition, especially considering both my parents grew up listening to such famous sounds.
(Olde School has several nights dedicated to live performances, from blues and jazz bands to local singers, so check their website, www.oldsschoolsaloonandbistro.com, to see what performances are upcoming).
This is the type of place that caters to any of your night-out needs. Want to have a few beers and listen to some tunes, while enjoying a cheeseburger? This is your place. Want an upscale meal that offers unique specials each week and is always made with the freshest ingredients and the perfect blend of flavors? Look no further.
If you're heading down to New Haven, stop in. It will be the first of many visits you make.