cuisine: Upscale comfort food
address: 84 Main Street, Torrington
phone: (860) 489-8900
credit cards: All major
4 Stars… Special
Backstage In Torrington Upstages Its Competition With Great Upscale Comfort Food
I have a real weakness for upscale comfort food. The increased popularity of this kind of food just might be the only good thing that came out of 9-11. The term can refer to old standards reimagined, or just executed really well.
What are possible hallmarks of an upscale comfort food menu? New England clam chowders and butternut squash bisques. Crab cakes and fish & chips. Premium burgers and hand-cut fries. Shepherd’s pies and roasted half chickens. Fancy meatloaves and lobster mac & cheeses. Hanger steaks and beef short ribs. Bread puddings and handmade donuts. A substantial number of entrées priced in the teens.
When I think of upscale comfort food, places like Dish Bar & Grill in Hartford, Martel Restaurant in Fairfield, Taste Restaurant & Lounge in North Haven, Burton’s Grill in South Windsor, and Harper’s Restaurant & Bar in Darien come to mind.
Well, move over, law firm of Dish, Martel, Taste, Burton’s and Harper’s, because there’s a new kid on the block. Brightening life in the culinary wasteland that is Torrington (sorry, but it’s true) is Backstage, which has moved into the space beside the Warner Theatre that most recently housed Cambridge House Brewpub. My closest friend, Robert, who works in Litchfield, is nothing short of ecstatic. He finally has a great weekday lunch option.
But Backstage is much more than just a purveyor of upscale comfort food. First, honoring the recent history of the space, Backstage features one of the top domestic beer lists in Connecticut. Its twenty-four beers on tap ($3.50–$7) probably constitutes the largest selection in Northwest Connecticut. Never mind another seventy-odd beers in bottles ($3–$8.50, not counting bombers).
Second, Backstage is a hugely popular dining destination for people attending events at the Warner Theatre (although people would do well to keep in mind that dining of this caliber doesn’t happen in half an hour and allow an appropriate amount of time to eat).
Third, using the name Backstage Live, Backstage also leases the Nancy Marine Studio Theatre located directly behind it from the Warner Theater. Backstage Live, which is accessed at the rear of the restaurant, can be counted among the many appealing smaller music venues that have sprouted up in Connecticut. I recently attended a Dave Mason concert with my younger daughter, finding the performance memorable, the seats comfortable and the view and acoustics superb. Upcoming acts of note include J.D. Souther, Wanda Jackson, Little Feat, Dar Williams and Arlo Guthrie.
The music theme of the restaurant is unsurprising, because Backstage’s owner is Keith Mahler, president of Premier Concerts, Connecticut’s largest independent concert promoter. Not being a restaurateur, Mahler brought in as managing director one of Connecticut’s most respected restaurant minds, my own boss and owner of this website, Robert DeZinno. (DeZinno’s son, Christopher, is also a manager in the restaurant.) This disclosure is not intended so much as an objectivity alert (I never surrender my objectivity when reviewing) as showcasing the benefits of a collaboration between top talents from two creative industries—music and food. Ironically, Backstage’s highly capable and imaginative chef, Keith Richard Bisciotti, has a name that sounds born of such a merging.
One of the joys of Backstage’s expansive selection of draught beers is ordering a flight of four four-ounce pours ($7). They’re served on a wooden board with four circular cut-outs for glasses to keep the glasses from sliding and to help one keep track of what one’s drinking. I deliberately eschewed ordering anything I had tried before. My selection included an Island Creek Oyster Stout from Harpoon Brewery in Windsor, Vermont actually cooked with oysters, a Hatch Plug Ale from Cavalry Brewing in Oxford, an Oaked Arrogant Bastard from Stone Brewing Company in Escondido, California, and a Purple Haze from Abita Brew Pub in Abita, Louisiana.
My buddy Robert’s selection included a Munich Dark and an Uber-Bock from Harpoon Brewery, a Burton Baton from Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Delaware, and a personal favorite, a Ten Penny Ale from Olde Burnside Brewing Company in East Hartford. My buddy John preferred full-sized pours to samplers, choosing a Liquid Gold from Captain Lawrence Brewing Company in Pleasantville, New York, and a Storm King Stout from Victory Brewing Company in Downington, Pennsylvania. If one’s committing to a full-sized pour of an unfamiliar beer, it’s gratifying to know that Backstage is happy to provide one with a small taste of it first.
The elegant lady who accompanied us, however, sipped glasses of Cambria Chardonnay ($9/$34) from Backstage’s growing wine list ($21–$40). And as my buddies and I hit the core of our meal, we moved from beer to wine, enjoying a bottle of 2005 Napa Ridge Syrah, Napa Valley, California ($7/$27). One of the joys of Backstage is that there seems to be something for everyone.
Please all, and you will please none? It’s always a delicate balancing act trying to fashion a menu with something for all tastes. Backstage comes awfully close. I won’t speculate who couldn’t find something to enjoy, because vegetarians, waist watchers, pub grubbers, burger chompers, meat and potato eaters, seafood lovers, housemade pasta snobs, and the sweet of tooth all will find their needs met. There’s even a local farm cheese and charcuterie plate featuring meats from Nodine’s Smokehouse in Torrington (a definite exception to my “culinary wasteland” jibe).
The décor is casual, the ambiance upbeat, as befits a beer-centric restaurant whose customers may be hanging in the large vibrant bar area half the evening or dashing in to grab pleasing fare before heading into the Warner Theatre or Backstage Live. There’s a wide variety of interior spaces, and one gets the feeling that, if one modulated the sound levels carefully, one could tuck away two or three small musical acts performing simultaneously in the restaurant itself. The ceilings in some areas are very high, but lower ceilings give smaller spaces along the windows a feeling of intimacy. Looking out upon Main Street at night makes one feel that one’s inhabiting an Edward Hopper painting. There’s even substantial balcony seating, which I observed is popular with musicians and set-up crews seeking a little privacy.
The staff was hired and trained by DeZinno, which means it performs at a higher level than you would expect of a casual restaurant. You’re not likely to get in the door un-greeted, or out the door un-thanked, small but important details often overlooked at other restaurants. The staff exhibits good teamwork. Margaret, the waitress assigned to us, took great care of us throughout our meal. When we learned she resided in Torrington, we asked if she came much to Backstage on her nights off. “Sure,” she said. “You don’t have to get all dressed up or empty your paycheck.”
We started with crispy rock shrimp ($10). The addictive shrimp were marinated in olive oil and lemon, lightly dusted with a seasoned flour mix, and served with a lemon wedge and an orange-chili dipping sauce. Two fat moist Maryland lump crab cakes ($12) were so nice and crabby that I barely used the zingy rémoulade sauce that came with them.
But one of Backstage’s most delightful flights of fancy is its Prince Edward Island mussels ($9) served in a broth with garlic crostini. Rather than just serving the mussels in the standard white wine broth, the preparation varies daily, making it difficult to resist ordering the delicious bivalves every time one visits! Our mussels came in a broth born of sautéing pancetta, garlic and sweet Vermouth together. When we ran out of mussels, we dipped our garlic bread in the broth, and when we ran out of garlic bread, we slurped the remaining broth, scooping it up with mussel shells. That’s how good it was.
There are items one can order at most restaurants and, frankly, count on them sucking. Chicken skewers, for instance, which if one’s lucky have some grill flavor but are almost never marinated. Nachos. Poppers. It’s the mark of a good restaurant when expectations for dishes such as these are consistently exceeded.
But once one finds one’s expectations consistently exceeded, one adjusts them. And so, when we ordered a grilled steak quesadilla ($10), we really believed it would be good. And, of course, it was! Streaked with chipotle aïoli, the steak-and-Cheddar-filled quesadilla triangles were light, crisp and greaseless, the delicious combination enhanced with piquant pico de gallo and sumptuous guacamole.
We had two more appetizers remaining that could be called “comfort classics.” One was a really pretty lobster Cobb salad ($14), the ingredients arranged in perfect rows of hard-boiled egg, Nodine’s applewood smoked bacon, crumbled Maytag blue cheese, chilled picked lobster meat, fresh avocado, and bright red tomato wedges from March Farm in Bethelehem, all served over a bed of greens in a lovely, slightly sweet, honey-citrus vinaigrette. The other was a big block of scrumptious Porter-braised beef short rib ($10) in a smoked tomato reduction served with a Yukon gold potato hash theatrically separated from the meat by a pappadam crisp. One must be careful, however, because this “appetizer” is likely to put a serious dent in one’s appetite.
“I’d like to start you out fresh,” said Margaret, surveying the evidence of our enjoyment of our appetizers. She exchanged the soiled butcher paper, which was rotated forty-five degrees over our square wood table, leaving the corners exposed, with a fresh brown paper square.
We tried a number of entrées, but we began with a burger. When I travel to exotic locales (I’m not referring to Torrington), it’s a nice juicy burger that I eventually find myself missing the most. Backstage is already gaining a real reputation for its dozen or so different burgers. It uses eight-ounces of fresh, never frozen, certified Angus beef which it grinds in house, seasons, grills and serves over bakery-fresh housemade rolls. Our mouthwatering house classic ($9) was topped with white Cheddar cheese, Nodine’s applewood smoked bacon, lettuce, tomato and red onion, and accompanied by French fries and a sour pickle spear. If I lived even half an hour closer to Torrington, I’d be in there at least weekly for the burgers.
But Backstage is so much more than great burgers. Requested rare, two big triangular cuts of sesame-seared fresh tuna ($19) in a smoked scallion vinaigrette were served with citrus-infused basmati rice. Massive enough for Fred Flintstone, tender braised lamb shank ($18) in a rosemary demi-glace was served with mashed sweet potatoes and wonderful caramelized parsnip. The richness of a block of meatloaf ($14) made with ground beef and leavened with saltines was countered perfectly by a vinegary rosemary demi-glace. The meatloaf, garnished with frizzled onions and complemented with mashed potatoes and broccoli rabe, was another comfort classic that I could eat weekly, if I just lived a little closer.
When I travel to exotic locales, a serious steak is the thing I miss most after a nice hamburger. So when it came to our steak, I hogged most of it. Reviewing has its privileges. The succulent twelve-ounce Angus New York strip steak ($26) was cut two-inches thick, finished with a black peppercorn brandy demi-glace, served with roasted garlic mashed potatoes and garnished with Vidalia onion strings.
But one of our group broke rank, eager to try a lobster shore dinner special ($26.95). I was happy to let John go, just insisting on getting a little taste of everything he got because, well, it’s my job. Like the rest of us, he had all of the nice dinner rolls he wanted. But he also had a choice between a crisp garden salad or a cup of New England clam chowder. John chose the latter, pronouncing the soup, which was redolent of clam and beautifully seasoned, too good to use oyster crackers on.
We teased John about needing a bib, but he fared surprisingly well without one. (There was one moment where I needed a bib due to his lobster eating, but that’s another matter.) Also steamed with his perfectly done chick Maine lobster were corn on the cob, red bliss potatoes, sweet onion and littleneck clams. A ramekin of drawn butter, a lemon wedge, and shellfish utensils also accompanied the lobster. I couldn’t resist complaining, how come it’s always someone else who gets the cool chick?
Finishing off John’s great dinner deal was the best item of all—strawberry shortcake. This was a proper strawberry shortcake made with a baking powder biscuit, gorgeous ripe strawberries and delightful citrus-balsamic whipped cream. John definitely did well striking out on his own.
The rest of us enjoyed great desserts too, lamenting that, after so much food, our spirits were willing but our flesh was weak. A wondrously fresh red velvet cupcake ($5) was sliced in half at the waist so it could take on twice as much delicious cream cheese frosting. Served in three square little ramekins, a trio of crème brûlées ($6) with perfect fragile torched crusts featured vanilla bean, espresso and white chocolate flavors and came with a cranberry almond biscotto. A rich bananas Foster bread pudding ($6) was escorted, appropriately, by caramel ice cream.
Recently, after enjoying nearly two decades of improving restaurant food in Connecticut, I have grown concerned that the quality is leveling off or even declining. A chief reason I have identified is that there are too many shortcuts available to chefs. Many of today’s chefs, for instance, have no more idea what to do with a whole fish than my youngest does with a rotary phone. I’m in a lot of restaurant kitchens, and I know that all too many, sadly, are overstocked with large boxes, cans, bottles and packets of frozen food.
A restaurant like Backstage heartens me. It makes me feel that what I do—namely, bringing worthy restaurants to readers’ attention—still matters. Backstage showcases good old-fashioned scratch cooking using premium ingredients. It bakes its own rye and wheat breads in house. A slight tweaking of the original Parker House roll recipe, Backstage’s dinner rolls and burger buns are also baked on the premises. Its veal stock is made by the chef with real veal bones.
It’s comforting to know that some restaurateurs still believe in doing things right. Backstage’s success in serving high-quality yet affordable comfort food classics will help put Torrington on the culinary map.