By Elizabeth Keyser
2:40 PM EST, November 25, 2013
Restaurants can restore us. Some days we need to be rewarded, comforted, and treated with good food and company. Lunch with a friend, a nice lunch, in a beautiful place. The answer the other day was Artisan.
Artisan, in the Delamar Hotel in Southport, evokes its name with old-world meets contemporary craftsmanship. In the dining room and tavern, murals of monumental magnolias and tulips by Swedish painter Jonas Wickman add a dramatic sense of scale to the calming, understated design. The floors are wide, unfinished wood boards. Dramatic wire chandeliers hang from the ceiling. In the Tavern, the zinc bar glows. Natural light from the wall of French windows that open onto a big patio (a vibrant bar scene in warm weather), floods the room. In one corner of the Tavern, there's a tall, white-tiled, Swedish stove.
Despite the appeal of the Tavern, with its café chairs and bare-topped tables, today we chose the dining room, where the elegant black chairs are padded in a sedate, Swedish, gray check, the tables are draped in starched white cloths, and wine glasses reflect the light from the windows. If this luxury is sounding expensive, let me tell you, we'd come for the $19 prix fixe lunch.
Chef Frederic Kieffer is a native of France. Seasonal and local is natural for him. Gilbertie's Farm in Easton grows twelve, 36-foot beds for Artisan (and a large greenhouse provides greens through winter). Artisan's prix fixe lunch menu adapts to what's available. For an appetizer, you can choose from the farmer's salad, soup du jour, or "special appetizer." Today that's "corn bread," which sounds plain but isn't. A rectangle of sweet, moist corn bread topped with house-cured and smoked bacon, braised till tender and sliced, then laid atop the corn bread and covered by a sunny-side egg. This sweet-salty richness was surrounded by a ring of red wine reduction. It's a winning dish. Look for it soon on Artisan's brunch menu.
The soup du jour was mushroom, earthy with puréed fungi, drizzled with truffle oil. The prix fixe offers a glass of house wine for an additional $6. My friend was happy with the pinot grigio and I enjoyed the malbec.
Entrée choices are omelets/quiche of the day, catch of the day or the special sandwich. I didn't catch the description of the quiche because I wasn't in an egg mood. Neither was I in a sandwich mood. The seafood of the day was mussels. We both ordered them and were pleased by the deep, white bowls of plump mussels in white wine sauce. The broth, flecked with herbs and translucent minced shallots, was clean-tasting, not overly buttery. I asked for a spoon, because sometimes a mussel shell isn't big enough. I indulged in more warm, crusty bread, dipping it into the broth.
We talked, we ate, we laughed, until we could eat no more. (We can always talk more!) The portions were hearty. The service was flawless — pleasant, unobtrusive, yet watchful. The atmosphere was quiet but not stuffy. Around us, people engaged in conversation, in normal tones of voice. (We punctuated the afternoon with a laugh or two.)
Tea and coffee come with the prix fixe, graciously extending our meal and conversation. We didn't have dessert, but if we did, it would have been the "cheese cake." Incredibly fluffy, it's cooked slowly (at 200 degrees), topped with caramel and sea salt. Two new seasonal desserts have been added, pumpkin cheese cake, same method, topped with cranberry glaze and two ginger-snap cookies to represent the crust. Or how about a high-end take on a Twix bar? Layers of a light, crisp cookie, caramel pecan and ganache.
The prix fixe menu is not the only choice at lunch. Sea food chowder, one of Artisan's most popular dishes, is an appetizer ($13). The light, creamy, sea-food broth features poached clams, shrimp, fish and shitake mushroom, served with house-made fennel crackers.
Prices rise at dinner, but inducements abound. Pastas are made in-house, and the pappardelle with rabbit ragu ($16/$29), a dish I'm longing to try, features rabbits raised at Gilbertie's. The most popular, and utterly original entrée, is the local fluke, beneath a thin, flavorful crust of gouda and bread crumbs. It's served with parsnips and creamed spinach and concorde grape reduction. Another popular dish is risotto made from Carolina Gold rice from Anson Mills. Chef Kieffer says it's a "beautiful" rice, less starchy than arborio, which is traditionally used in Italian risotto. Kieffer uses the middlins, the pieces left over after milling. Smaller, they become creamy in this risotto featuring Stonington red shrimp, with chorizo, and leeks.
Chef Kieffer is one of the most respected chefs in Fairfield County. Just last week I was talking to a sommelier who's worked at some of Fairfield County's most celebrated restaurants, including Gaia, when Kieffer was executive chef. "The most talented chef I ever worked with," he said. Kieffer is grounded in classic technique, open to innovation and inspired by New England's land and seas. And while the economy's still bad, we don't have to be riche to get our fixe.
275 Old Post Road, Southport, (203) 307-4222, artisansouthport.com