It’s fair to say my husband is obsessed with raw fish, so as soon as we heard that the latest incarnation of The Essex was Japanese we raced over. Chef Colt Taylor loves to change things up, so an explanation is in order. Two restaurants now reside in the meticulously renovated house at 30 Main Street in Centerbrook. The larger room with the open kitchen at the back has been given over to an extremely popular Mexican cantina with a hopping bar, serving fresh takes on tacos with quality ingredients, and the Friday Fajita Night ($30 for two) is not to be missed.
The slightly fancier fire-placed room at the front is where Chef Colt gets to flex his fish-tattooed muscles, experimenting with a different cuisine every three months or so. In our opinion, he may well want to stick with Japan. But why Japan? A three-year stint as sous chef at Le Bernardin, arguably the best fish restaurant in the world, got him started. Crudo (slim slices of raw fish) is his thing, but it’s not as understandable or approachable (or popular) as sushi.
It’s also fair to say that raw fish is NOT my obsession, but there’s plenty to please on the menu for me, too. After a few skewers of sublime grilled yakitori (the Wagyu rib eye is nuts!), my husband dove into plate after plate of sushi and sashimi, as I happily slurped on lobster and pork ramen in a velvety, flavorful broth. But about that raw fish; it’s not your average slab. Here King Salmon comes sprinkled with sesame, yuzu pickled fennel, and salmon roe. The Hawaiian Kampachi Nigiri is flavored with rhubarb ponzu and shiso. Avocado, yuzu, ginger, and shoyu boost the Blue Fin Tuna Sashimi. The guy uses only white shoyu (authentic Japanese gluten-free soy) and makes his own miso for a first course of tasty soup and for the ramen.
The food is not intimidating and, frankly, not as expensive as some of Colt’s previous menus. The ramen runs $15 (vegan mushroom) to $18 (my big bowl of lobster and pork belly). The yakitori skewers start at $6, and it would be fun to make a shared meal of a few of them. The raw fish servings (each could be a small meal, especially the King Salmon) start at $16. Plated dinners are available, too, and I saw a lovely dish of Diver Scallops with lemongrass miso and oyster mushrooms go by, and I’ll be back for Japanese Short Ribs with Forbidden Rice.
The cocktails continue the Asian theme, and I was thrilled by the Pandemonium: a sake-based drink with yuzu liqueur (a Japanese citrus), lime, and habanero. A giant hibiscus ice cube turns the pale liquid fuschia as it melts!
For those looking for the full-on experience, an Omakase Tasting Menu of sushi and sashimi is available at $70, and a Kaiseki tasting of small plates is $85.
There is no denying that Colt is a highly creative chef, who loves to experiment with flavor profiles and umami. But we think he’s found his sweet spot in Japan and we hope there’s a long layover for this iteration.
See the menu and hours here: www.theessex.com
30 Main Street, Centerbrook
Read about Los Charros here.
Main Photo: Ora King Salmon Furikake, yuzu pickled fennel, nori, smoked roe
Lobster & Pork Ramen, Walu and King Salmon
Grilled Yellowfin Tuna with nori and black garlic molasses
Grilled Snake River Farms American Wagyu
Pandemonium: a sake-based cocktail with yuzu liqueur, lime, habanero and hibiscus