The Embodiment of the American Bistro

THE American bistro is a restaurant phenomenon that has been developing in this country since French bistro cooking came into vogue in the 1980’s. French bistros weave the elegance of traditional French cuisine with the everyday aesthetic of a neighborhood restaurant. It’s not an easy mix to pull off in the United States, where we do not have a long tradition of American cuisine, and where elegance is too often misconstrued as “fancy.”

But sometime during my second meal at Jeffrey’s restaurant in Milford, looking out the back and across a field of high yellow-green marsh grasses to the Long Island Sound, it occurred to me that this restaurant successfully defines American bistro as well as any place I have tried in Connecticut.

The cuisine is a modestly inventive mix of French and Italian with the occasional foray into Asian and Latin cuisines. The food is consistently good, often excellent. As important, there is a balance of formality and intimacy, and a particularly American style of easy hospitality that sets the standard for an American bistro.

Jeffrey’s, open since 1994, instituted a more casual menu this June, using with the same chef. From the front, on the verge of an industrial stretch of Route 162, the restaurant might be an upscale diner with kitschy Greek Revival pediment and columns. Inside, however, it is airy and light; elegant white columns offset creamy pale-green walls, and that fantastic view opens the room out into a different world.

The formality of the space is balanced by the service, which while professional, is more friendly than formal. The staff is quietly welcoming and helpful. So, a comment by our maître d’hôtel one night about her day job felt inclusive and congenial. When our young waiter, new to his job, returned to the table because he had forgotten our dessert orders, we were rooting for him.
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The contemporary cuisine is sophisticated but stops short of fancy. Cream soups are exquisitely made, rich in taste but not heavy with cream. A lobster corn bisque tastes appropriately of lobster, not cream, and is sweet with puréed corn. Mushroom cream soup seems to have been whipped; it’s a little frothy, with a deep mushroom taste. Clam chowder has hunks of chewy clam, celery, carrots and potatoes; a little tomato brightens the cream.

Agnolotti are large triangles of pasta stuffed with mascarpone and lobster, dressed with a balsamic reduction that effectively cuts the sweetness of the cream and lobster. Open-face ravioli is a dish of crab and shrimp floating in a delicate white-truffle chive broth, topped with one large square of pasta — a tad affected, but it tasted wonderful.

Calamari is crisp and light, dipped in a chipotle mayonnaise. Oysters broiled with rosemary and lemon topped with crisp, deep-fried shallot are heavenly. But quesadillas don’t quite hold together.
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My favorite entrees are seafood. Tuna, studded with black sesame seeds and cooked very rare, is served with a pile of slivered vegetables dressed with a sesame-ginger-soy vinaigrette — delicious but the wasabi mashed potatoes needed salt. Wild salmon is finished with a perfectly ripe, sweet-tart mango salsa.

A gripe I have with contemporary American cuisine is the preponderance of sweet garnishes used by chefs. Mashed sweet potatoes and cranberry-pineapple chutney add too much sugar to pork T-bone, which was overcooked the night I ordered it; blueberries and maple-mashed sweet potatoes on the duck seem like overkill. (That said, my mother-in-law declared it the best duck she had ever eaten.)

For dessert, a macadamia nut-white chocolate cheesecake is a delicious balance of sweet and tart, rich with nut. Smooth crème brûlée is well made and coconut cream pie is encased in a particularly tender, buttery crust.

I’m giving Jeffrey’s a rating of Excellent, not because the cooking is perfect but because the restaurant hits all the right notes for an American bistro. It’s a neighborhood joint, with class.

Jeffrey’s 501 New Haven Avenue, Milford (203)878-1910

Excellent

ATMOSPHERE — Airy, high ceiling, pale green room with Greek Revival columns. Stunning views. NOISE LEVEL — Moderate. SERVICE — Very good. RECOMMENDED DISHES — Broiled oysters, lobster corn bisque, mushroom soup, clam chowder, fish stew, agnolotti with lobster and mascarpone, calamari, open-face ravioli with crab and shrimp, all salads, duck breast with foie gras blueberry sauce, sesame tuna, salmon with mango salsa, lamb chops, coconut pie, macadamia nut-white chocolate cheesecake, crème brûlée, Key lime pie, chocolate bombe cake. PRICE RANGE — Appetizers, $3 to $12; entrees, $15 to $24; sandwiches, $6 to $8; desserts: $7. CREDIT CARDS — All major cards accepted. HOURS — Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily; dinner Monday to Thursday, 5 to 8:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.; breakfast Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; closed for dinner on Sunday. RESERVATIONS — Recommended. WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBILITY — Good. REVIEWED BY THE TIMES — Oct. 16, 2005.

RATINGS — Extraordinary, Excellent, Very Good, Good, Satisfactory, Fair, Poor. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s reaction to food, ambience and service, with price taken into consideration. Menu listings and prices are subject to change.