Walking in to The Essex for the first time, it was clear that this was not going to be an ordinary dinner – we were in for an experience. Walking out almost five hours later, and just about all of our expectations were shattered.
Colt Taylor opened up The Essex in the summer of 2017 in Centerbrook, Connecticut. What used to be offices and cubicles is now a restaurant and market. Attention was paid to every detail while renovating, from the painting on the walls done by Taylor’s mother to the open kitchen.
What made The Essex stand out for us? Read on to find out.
Colt Taylor, owner and chef, brings years of experience, education, and passion for exquisite food to the Connecticut shoreline. Taylor studied at the Culinary Institute of America, and has since worked with some of the best chefs in the world, including chefs at four 3-Star Michelin Restaurants.
Coming back to a small town, Taylor has taken on the task of cooking for both the local clientele in Essex as well as seasonal New York City guests. Taylor immerses himself in creating the best menu for both worlds. Since opening, the menu has changed 16 times. These changes include specific and calculated flavor profile changes, ranging from Korean to Indian, Mexican to Chinese. And each night, Taylor is out on the floor, greeting guests at the door, serving food, making recommendations, and listening to feedback. He learns what his guests gravitate towards and makes upgrades to his menu from there.
While Chef Taylor listens to his guests, he also urges them to try new things while dining. When talking about his menu, his down to earth and welcoming vibe launches into passion for food done right. Suddenly you are engulfed in the history, process, and tasting profile of the dish in question.
FOOD AND DRINK
It’s no question with that amount of education and experience the food speaks for itself. But before we go there, let’s talk cocktails.
Michela Zurstadt, bar manager, has as much passion for drinks as Chef does for food. She has created the cocktail list, adding in a new drink only when she feels like it is perfected. Zurstadt is currently in the process of creating bitters and tinctures for upcoming drink lists, and the process is not an easy one. She comes in early each week to mix up new tinctures. This involves carefully measuring out all ingredients, writing everything down, and then tasting it each week and writing notes on how it develops. One tincture she has in the works is honey, cinnamon, and clove. Others will continue to stew until new drinks come out in warmer months.
Tinctures are not the only thing made in house. As it says on The Essex’s menu: “All of our products are made fresh in house, from our bread and buns, dressings, and stocks to our gelato.” Even the truffle fries start with hand cut potatoes and take four days of soaking, cooking, and more soaking before they are ready to fry (and trust us – you don’t want to miss these fries!). The Essex even boasts its own dry age room and fermentation lab.
With so many restaurants going farm to table, Taylor wants to go above and beyond fresh food. “It’s 2018, all flavor pairings have been done,” Taylor said. “So how do you excite guests? There are two ways: you dip into nostalgia and take the flavor profiles that work.” From the nostalgia (such as apple pie) Taylor adds his twist (adding herbs in the pie crust). He does this for flavor profiles he knows work, continuously shifting perspectives on food, adding in and taking out ingredients to get the perfect dish.
CHANGING THE LANDSCAPE
Chef Taylor’s passion does not stop with food. He strives to change how things are done – both in Essex and in the restaurant world.
Taylor knows what it is like to work in restaurants, paid next to nothing, and treated poorly by restaurant managers and guests alike. He pays above the $2.13 standard hourly rate for servers, and treats all of his staff like equals. Taylor is an advocate for Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, which works to improve wages and working conditions for those in the restaurant industry. “I want this to be the best place to eat, but number one on the list, even more important than guests, are staff,” Taylor said. The treatment of staff shows on their relaxed and smiling faces. Some of the first words Zurstadt told us were, “This is by far the happiest I’ve ever been at a job.”
Chef Taylor’s calculated and thoughtful moves don’t stop with his menu or his staff. He chose to open his restaurant in Essex for a reason. He tore down the walls to the kitchen for a reason. Taylor wants to see Essex thrive, and said, “Restaurants change everything. They can change the landscape of everything.” Taylor could have chosen to build in a town where restaurants are already booming, but The Essex wasn’t built to simply fit in. “I want to be the driving force instead of coming in after the wave.”
For more information on The Essex, click here. For reservations, call (860) 237-4189.