Tucked away at the bottom of Greenwich Avenue in tony Greenwich, Connecticut sits a gem called Versailles. Locals know of it and have been flocking to this small sweet eatery since it first opened it's doors in 1980. I've been for lunch many times and have always loved their salads. I have a soft spot for their Salade Nicoise that seems to always bring me back to my youth in the South of France. A couple of years ago the bistro was purchased by Marc and Evelyne Penvenne. (Many may recognize them as the owners of Meli-Melo Creperie & Juice Bar just across the Avenue.) Quite surprising, I had never had dinner there and was thrilled to join a group of writers, bloggers and photographers there last week.
Typical of most bistros, the space is not terribly large. There's a sort of a casual and relaxed elegance to the atmosphere, but in regards to the food there's nothing casual about it whatsoever. At Versailles food is truly an artform that appeases all the senses - sight, smell, taste, touch.
This experience started immediately when we were introduced by Marc to an aperitif called Byrr - even though it may sound like the foamy hoppy beverage, it's anything but. It's a sweet wine fortified with herbs, that on its own reminded me of an herbal sort of Port. It's often added to Champagne - much the way one would add, say a touch of Chambord. But forget about the Chambord, the Byrr has a depth that the latter doesn't and it's pomegranate-like color turns your glass of bubbles into a wonderfully aromatic and festive cocktail.
Along with our Byrr and Champagne we were presented with these delicate garlic and parsley tuilles - Delicate, light and aromatic, I tasted the garlic and parsley as well as butter, but there was a sweetness to these treats that I couldn't pinpoint. When I asked about it, I was told the recipe was a secret (un secret, Marc said with his French accent) and so with all due respect, I left it alone!
Next waiters began to pass around delicate little bites of smoked salmon with creme fraiche, lemon and dill on thin slices of pumpernickel and little squares of duck pate topped with cornichons. I could have snacked on these all night long. Soon thereafter we all made our way over to our tables. As we did I got a glimpse of what was going on in the kitchen. Executive Chef Erik Erlichson was busily working away in the kitchen, carefully crafting each plate so that each looked as beautiful as it tasted.
We began our feast with a Watermelon Salad that was perfectly paired with a light and crisp Baronne Fini Pinot Grigio. The salad consisted of a paper thin slice of watermelon, toasted pine nuts, baby arugula, ricotta salata which was salty but milder than the traditionally served feta and a small piece of candy-pickled rind that was unexpected and quite delicious.
Next we moved onto Chilled Maine Lobster served with hearts of palm, radish, tomato and cilantro which was paired with a light and well balanced Domaine La Colombe Rose. The lobster was tender, sweet and succulent and the cilantro offered a distinct and complementary flavor that I thought might overwhelm the delicate meat, but didn't.
Next we had the branzino. La piece de resistance. Iron-skillet-grilled with shaved fennel in a citrus emulsion and orange "oil." I will say without hesitation this is by far the best branzino I have ever had. Branzino is something I order on a regular basis. Chef Erlichson knocked this one out of the ballpark. Baseball fans would describe it as a home-run, football fans as a touch-down. As for me, this normally verbose girl was rendered speechless. The fish was perfectly cooked - soft, tender and flaky. The crust was delicate and crispy and brimming with flavor. The fennel and the citrus offered a slightly sweet balance to the savory. This was one of those dishes one wants simply to eat and enjoy, You don't want to interrupt the magic of flavors with bursts of conversation. The consensus at my table was that this dish was perfection, with one friend telling me that her eyes were rolling back in her head. Yes, it really was that good. Paired with the fish was a wonderfully surprising and refreshing wine, Ixsir, medium bodied, mellow, balanced, that came from Lebanon. Interesting, I know. Delicious indeed. Marc certainly knows his wines and his pairings each were right on the mark
I could have stopped after the branzino and my night would have been perfect, but then the Crispy Hudson Valley Duck Breast was presented to us. I don't care much for duck personally. I've always found it to be too gamey, but my job was to sample all that was presented to me. Accompanied by a salad of confit, snap peas, and carrot ginger dressing, I cut into a piece - crispy exterior and rare interior - and took a bite. I let the flavors and textures dance around in my mouth before making any judgement. But I knew one thing instantly. I didn't hate this. This wasn't gamey or strong. It was, comparatively speaking, quite mild. The crispy skin complemented the pink, tender ... I didn't dislike this. At all. In fact, it was absolutely delicious. I cleaned my plate. There was not a speck or morsel left behind. With this we enjoyed a Cabernet blend by David Chimney.
When you're out and you eat one incredible dish after another you expect, at some point, that something will eventually come along that isn't as good as the rest. But that didn't seem to happen here. On this night everything I had the pleasure to try was sublime and this can be also said for the steak tartare. This filet mignon of grass-fed beef with house sauce and traditional seasonings was paired with a full bodied Ixir Altitudes Cab blend, also from Lebanon.
When I think of the tartare of my childhood I conjure up images of raw meat, hamburger-like, topped off with a raw egg. My father adored this and ordered it often. The dish has evolved a good bit since my childhood and seems to enjoy a newfound popularity that usually involved the chopped meat mixed with something chunky, flavorful and savory. Here, cornichons, parsley, hardboiled as well as raw egg are just some of the items that are blended in to make this dish so divine.
A French Bistro is just a bistro without some Moules Frites (mussels and French fries.) For me it's not just about the mussels as much as it is about the broth. Perfected. Perfectly balanced with wine and garlic, parsley and butter, I joked that I wanted to bottle up the remaining jus and bring it home with me. When the last of the mollusks had been consumed we feverishly dipped the crispy, tender salty frites into the broth. We were also given a side of a wonderful Dijon-mayonnaise dipping sauce for which the fries served as the perfect vehicle to deliver it into our mouths. I think we oohed and ahhed over this too.
It would seem that with each and everything we tried, one was better than the next.
Eventually it all had to come to an end. Our came to a tart, sweet end with a chilled fruit soup topped off with Cedric's frozen yogurt, a perfect palate cleanser. Paired with this was a sweet, after dinner drink, Pineau de Charentes, a fortified wine made from a blend of fermented grapes and cognac.
I've not had a meal like this in a very long time.
I recommend every dish I sampled as it was all sublime, but it was the branzino that won my heart!
If you've never been to Versailles, you must. If you've not been in a long time, you might want to revisit this Greenwich institution. . Chef's hats off to Executive Chef Erik Erlichson.
Versailles is conveniently located 339 Greenwich Avenue, Greenwich, CT and is easily accessible from I-95.