22 Aug 2014
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Fun in the Schoolhouse

Chef/owner Tim LaBant serves delectable new American dishes in a former one-room schoolhouse that hasn't lost its original character.

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If location is everything, then the should not even be on the books. This almost dollhouse-like restaurant sits in a very small square in Wilton, a pocket park village cradled by a ribbon of a brook, railroad tracks and a tree-laden lane of comfortable Colonials. For people driving down from Trumbull or even from nearby Greenwich, the Schoolhouse seems like a bit off the beaten track to go for dinner, but the place draws customers like bears to the honeypot. If a restaurant consistently serves good food at fair prices, the people will come, period, no matter how isolated or how far away or how humble the place may be. Good food in the middle of nowhere will always trump mediocrity in any restaurant on Main Street anywhere.

That’s the case with the Schoolhouse, celebrating its fifth anniversary this year. Chef/owner Tim LaBant, a 37 year-old who has repeatedly reaped accolades for his cooking, describes his food as “American.” An appellation that has become increasingly popular, “American” is obviously a synthesis of many cuisines. In the hands of a talented cook like LaBant, it is an uncommon creativity in the subjective interpretation of these cuisines. He worked in kitchens of well-known chefs of Asian and French food before he launched his catering career a number of years ago. Catering is still a huge part of his business, while the restaurant allows many more people to experience his food just as it comes out of the kitchen.

LaBant forages into French (the Mornay sauce in the warm asparagus appetizer and the crème fraîche with the chicken and the spoon bread ), Mexican (chili-lime juice with fried calamari), Spanish (gazpacho), Italian (branzino over warm zucchini salad), Native American (corn spoon bread underpinning chicken). He doesn’t go in for swirls and whirligigs on his dishes. Nor are there towers to the sky or foam vaporizing before you can even inhale an elusive aroma. What he cooks is just good food that's nicely presented and delicious.

We went to the Schoolhouse on a stormy night, for the Thursday night prix fixe dinner of $40 per person. There are two selections for each of the four courses, so the two of us enjoyed the entire menu. If you opt for the wine pairings on three of the courses, your bill is $65 for each diner.

One of LaBant’s fortés is to make bedfellows of ingredients not often seen cavorting on the same plate, like the lobster and julienned nasturtium in the cold gazpacho beautifully tempered with watermelon though a bit more lobster would have added considerably to the lushness of the soup. Watermelon again steps up to the plate, this time cooling the bite of chili and smoky cilantro alongside the calamari. Poached asparagus is cuddled in a creamy sauce enriched with melted Gruyère and earthy morels. The dish is also composed of half of a hard-boiled egg, whose soft yolk is a brilliant golden yellow. This dish is so simple, so elegant, that it sings.

And how about thick peasant bread, tamed by a bit of toasting and brushed with olive oil as a platform for ricotta and sliced apricots? Won’t that wow your guests at your next dinner party? Thick slices of chicken breast punctuated by colorful golf-size heirloom tomatoes meet spoon bread silkened by crème fraîche. The branzino is greeted by a felicitous chorus from the vegetable patch: green and yellow squash, peas, lima beans, zucchini blossoms, cucumber and mint. Quinoa also creeps into the mélange.

Corn gets roasted to be churned into ice cream scooped into an sundae glass, layered with crumbled maple corn cake and blackberries, and topped with whipped cream whispering of lavender. Although corn ice cream is not a novelty by now, it’s fun to taste the spin the pastry chef at the Schoolhouse brings to this blackberry classic. A bevy of flavors from rosemary maple honey, almond-coconut granola, and cinnamon stick ice cream elevate the fig upside down cake from farmhouse simplicity to an elegant dessert worthy of dinner for the boss. I love its not-too-sticky caramel cloak and the barest hint of orange.

Wines are just as intriguing because one doesn’t often get an opportunity to explore unheralded grapes or wineries that produce wonderful products at affordable prices. The viognier from Pie De Palo, Argentina, played some exotic tropical notes against the gazpacho while the tangy Sancerre made a very good marriage with the calamari as well as with the peach/ricotta toast. In the one misstep of the evening, our waiter never served us the alaia from Spain, although we spied glasses of red wine on nearby tables. I decided to let that go because I was still nursing the Sancerre, but I should have spoken up.

The trappings at the Schoolhouse are by no means haute décor, which would have been so out of place. It’s easy to imagine the restaurant as the one-room schoolhouse it was in the late 1800s. LeBant has deliberately chosen to keep the building small (32 covers at one seating) and it’s easily recognized in a vintage black-and-white framed photograph inside. The white clapboard with its brick walkway, flanking garden beds and cupola (alas, the bell that summoned students to class is missing) is worthy of a Norman Rockwell imprint. The interior, of course, has been updated. It now sports dark chocolate brown paint on upper walls and light-refracting white walls below the wainscoting. There are long banquets decked out in a chevron print under the windows on two sides and linen-napped tables with a posy bouquet on each table.

Since the tables are so close together, you find yourself chatting with the people on either side of you. There was a couple, married 56 years, celebrating a birthday, and on the other side of us, five very happy young moms were toasting their few hours of escape from kids, husbands and chores. The Schoolhouse is so cozy you can come decked out in jacket and tie or in kakis and sport shirt.

Menus change frequently, particularly the Thursday night prix fixe, but half the fun is in the discovery of the unusual. And the other half of the discovery is to savor really good food in a little niche in pastoral Wilton.

34 Cannon Road
Wilton, CT 06897
203-834-9816 http://www.schoolhouseatcannondale.com

Dinner: Wed., Thurs., Fri., & Sat.
Brunch: Sun.
Reservations highly recommended
Parking on site

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