For a taste of New England, you needn’t go very far. Just a 70-minute train trip out of Grand Central Station takes you from the hectic city jungle to the sleepy village of Southport in Fairfield County, Connecticut, populated by 1,585 souls as of the 2010 census.
In this village of stately mansions and white picket fences (and anxious neighbors who peek out from behind curtains if you linger to admire too long), there are some endearingly quirky points—especially for inured city veterans.
The Pequot Library, founded in 1889 and built in Romanesque revival style, is the town’s social hub (pequotlibrary.org). On its pretty manicured lawn, it hosts community events from Kentucky Derby parties to a potluck supper and campout to mark the start of the summer. The latter event is complete with a limbo line, chalk art, badminton, and a big pillow fight, with the option of pitching a tent overnight. Try doing that on the Bryant Park lawn.
The library’s resident bunny leads the Fourth of July bike parade, escorted by Fairfield Police. This is a working bunny, mind you—to whom young patrons can read, and check out (much like a library book), and take for a stroll round the block in a “Puffmobile.”
On Southport’s historic main street, you’ll find a couple of antique shops, an art gallery, a dive bar, a sandwich shop, and the enduring Switzer’s Pharmacy, which looks on the inside as though time stopped decades ago.
For visitors, there is the uncrowded Southport Beach, open to the public, which offers views and breezes from Long Island Sound.
And for food lovers, the real draw is one Frederic Kieffer, the executive chef of Artisan Restaurant, Tavern & Garden, located at the Delamar Southport hotel—and he is worth the trip (artisansouthport.com).
French-born Kieffer racked up experience at Taillevent and Le Chiberta before heading to New York, where he worked at Windows on the World and Water’s Edge. In Connecticut, he opened the well-received l’escale and Gaia.
I watched him work one evening as he whipped up a 10-course tasting menu for about 15 guests in one of the hotel’s private venues. In each dish, he made exquisite use of different local single-origin honeys from the purveyor he uses, Red Bee Honey.
For example, he used pumpkin blossom honey to make BBQ sauce for the meatballs he served over Anson Mills middlins (grits made from broken rice, if you will). The middlins gave the dish a creamy, gorgeous texture—a perfect carrier for the sauce. It was a sort of ultimate comfort food, and being the sixth course, I had to wonder what could come next.
For the seventh course, Kieffer offered bread with Roquefort, home churned butter, and goldenrod honey. He’s a man of few words and of great humility, and when he made an appearance from the kitchen, it was to recognize the hard work of the farmers he worked with—without which his own work would be nothing—and to say that butter and cheese should be experienced together. It was a winning combination: fat upon fat with a dose of honey, like a surfeit of goodness that had to be experienced to be believed.
He even managed to find a great use for buckwheat honey—that robust, dark honey with malty flavor—pairing it with caramelized pecans and homemade Guinness ice cream.
The regular, seasonal fare at Artisan is characterized by the same reverence for ingredients.
I’m not one to chase superfoods when I eat, but without hesitation I would order his Super Food Chopped Salad on the basis of the effect on my tastebuds alone. It sounds fairly straightforward: kale, butterhead, quinoa, avocado, blueberries, and sunflower seeds. This salad, bound by a light toasted coriander dressing, just grows on you: the pleasant toothsomeness of the quinoa set off against the crunch of the sunflower seeds and the burst of the blueberries keeps you going back for more.
You could top this off with your choice of flame broiled salmon, calamari, chicken, or hanger steak and make it a complete, delicious meal, but I wouldn’t. There’s much more to explore.
The classically trained Kieffer makes in-house charcuterie, including a stellar chicken liver mousse. With some slices of grilled bread (topped with a bit of olive oil and sea salt), the mousse is a harmonious match for the slight bitterness of the frisée and the pop of tangy pickled cherries.
For a taste of spring, try the gorgeous Roasted Beet Mosaic with hazelnut, cherry tomato, and goat cheese; or the “Burratina” Primavera, which similarly bursts with color, from the fresh English peas, corn, and roasted tomato ($15).
The fresh seafood dishes are well worth ordering, from the New England Seafood Chowder with mushroom and fennel crackers, to the springtime Lemon Lobster Risotto, with farro, artichoke, corn, spinach, and lobster essence.
Spare some space for dessert as well if you can manage. From tarts to cheesecakes, they have the same delicious, seasonal sensibility as the savory dishes.
The restaurant itself has a Swedish farmhouse design sensibility, with clean lines and yet a cozy feel. Inside, a floral mural by painter Jonas Wickman depicts white tulips and magnolia branches, bringing nature indoors; outside, in the four-season courtyard, fragrant herbs pave the way to the restaurant entrance.
A Weekend Trip
Out of town visitors can easily turn a trip to Artisan into a weekend away, with a stay at the comfortable boutique Delamar Southport (delamarsouthport.com; rates start from $259 per night in low season and $299 per night in high season). For those who don’t want to bother with a car, the hotel picks up visitors at the train station and offers rides within a 3-mile radius. That includes not only Southport Beach but also the residents-only Sasco Beach. They’ll pack a towel and water for you and pick you up at an appointed time.
The hotel provides complimentary bikes for riding along the back roads and taking in the sights of mansions built in the Greek revival, federal, and colonial styles.
Dogs up to 50 pounds are welcomed at the hotel with a personalized dog tag, a dog bed, bowls, and a welcome treat (for humans, it’s a glass of sherry or port).
There are a variety of promotional packages available, from Queens for a Day: A Royal Spa Getaway for groups of friends (a package for five starts at $1,495), to Summer in Southport for two (a package for two starts at $294). The latter includes, among other things, transportation to the beaches, a picnic lunch from Artisan, and—oh, the Delamar knows the town’s assets so well—the hotel’s library card for use at the Pequot Library.