A Stone’s Throw Away
by TODD LYON / photography by NICK CAITO
It was Alice Mattison’s first time. She hadn’t known that, only 27 minutes away via Route 34 – an ancient path once traversed by the Quiripi and the Paugusetts – there was a glorious respite from the muggy streets of New Haven.
“It’s like we got on a plane to get here. I feel like I’m in a different time zone,” says Mattison, her hair ruffled by cooling breezes rushing up from the Housatonic River. We were standing at an outdoor bar of sorts, a counter-height ledge with tall chairs for sitting and supping. But instead of facing a barkeep and a wall of shiny bottles, this bar faced the sky, dark pines, weeping willows and, far below, the deep green rippling river.
Mattison, a critically acclaimed author, has several works of fiction set in New Haven. Though she’s internationally known, it is her local readers who get the buzzy little thrill of recognition when a character, well into a story line, stops in at, say, Atticus, or meets a friend at Koffee?, or mentions a long-gone establishment – Bryn Mawr Books! – whose name she drops like a secret treat for fellow townies to savor. Mattison is so entrenched in our city that taking her out of East Rock on a hot summer night felt a bit like a kidnapping – or, at the very least, a smuggling.
It was, in fact, a low-risk outing. I knew we would have delicious food in a wonderful setting. That’s because the chef/owner of Stone’s Throw is Peter Hamme, who for 14 years delighted patrons at The Stone House in Guilford. That restaurant was sold to a well-heeled visitor who decided he wanted the building and the land for himself; Chef Hamme came roaring back in June of 2016 with a revamp and build-out of what was, most recently, Lake House, a seasonal restaurant in Seymour.
Peter Hamme and Tara Hamme – his co-owner, general manager and spouse – are denizens of the Valley, and had long been aware of the restaurant on the river. Historical records first identified the building in the 1850s, when it was a private home. During Prohibition, the place was rumored to have been a speakeasy, a hot spot for bootleggers running rum on the river, but it didn’t officially become an eatery until the 1970s.
Decades of add-ons followed; today, the restaurant is a series of environments, each following the next like a railroad flat, including a barroom, a cozy fireplace area and an ingenious telescoping dining room. It was Jennifer Recker, the chef’s business partner, general manager and sister-in-law, who explained the benefits of the glassed-in room to us.
“The middle bit acts as a greenhouse, so you can have lunch out here all winter,” she beams. We imagined sitting under glass like hothouse orchids, sipping liquids while bright snow swirled all around.
The menu at Stone’s Throw is as expansive and interesting as its surroundings. There is plenty of casual, approachable fare. A bar menu, served all day in a space where one could actually imagine spending all day, includes friendly favorites like tacos, wings and a crispy chicken sandwich, but also includes unexpected delights like an open-faced lamb burger with melted brie, and a po’boy featuring whole belly clams.
At dinner, Chef Hamme stretches out: A roast salmon is made with wasabi mascarpone, wild rice, spaghetti squash and Szechuan beurre blanc; an herb-crusted rack of lamb features a honey Dijon drizzle, cucumber-radish salad and Gaufrette potatoes; and a grilled head-on shrimp dish features black bean mole and roasted pepper-pineapple salsa. One of the chef’s personal favorites is the free-range roasted poussin, served simply with sage croutons over local baby arugula. He admits the dish isn’t ordered as often as he wishes it would be, perhaps because of unfamiliarity.
“Poussin is nothing scary, it’s just a young chicken,” he says. “Once people try it, they really like it.”
We New Haven escapees found ourselves enticed by so many dishes that it took us forever to order. Thankfully, we were shepherded through our indecision by Recker and our charming server Alex, who turned out to be Recker’s son. (Peter and Tara’s sons are also employed at Stone’s Throw; at any given time, as many as six cousins might be working there.) Following their advice, we started with a classic: Clams Casino. Sold by the piece – a nice touch – these smoky, sizzling beauties were very fine examples of their ilk, and the flavor of the local clams shone through. We asked for bread to sop up the juices, and boy, we were glad we did: it was dense, warm, chewy and dangerous for women trying to save their appetites.
Chef Hamme has a way with lamb; it appears in several iterations on Stone’s Throw’s menu, and we swooned over an appetizer of Albóndigas (Spanish-style lamb meatballs in tomato sauce), bursting with complex flavors. Next, a salad of baby spinach and Fleming Farm microgreens arrived, decorated with cucumber ribbons and globes of seasoned goat cheese. It was dressed with a blessedly light hand, and every bite of those tiny sprouted radishes – pop! pop! – exploded with peppery goodness. We found out later that the greens, grown in Orange, arrive each week in flats and are harvested with kitchen snips just before plating.
We had to order the Recking Balls. They were named for our server and his brothers and his mom; how could we not? These bumpy golden baseballs turned out to be mac and cheese stuffed with fresh mozz and deep-fried, topped with vodka sauce and basil oil. Talk about rich!
“I think my grandson would go for this,” says Mattison. “He really likes mac and cheese. It’s deep fat fried, nothing weird or green, plenty of crunch.” Kid friendly, to be sure – and a top choice for hearty bar patrons.
Three entrées were ordered, and mightily savored. A French Fisherman’s Stew was an ocean of fresh seafood, its saffron and fennel tomato broth crowded with Thimble Island clams, Prince Edward Island mussels, diver scallops, shrimp and chunks of fresh fish. A grilled hanger steak was big and bold yet well-balanced, with port sauce, Brazilian chimichurri, mashed potatoes and crispy potato planks all playing nicely with each other.
Stone’s Throw keeps things lively by featuring theme nights, a Sunday Jazz Brunch and weekly specials; because we were there on Lobster Fest Tuesday, my guest ordered the Lobster and Seafood Pot Pie. This was an elevated version of a pot pie, a shallow bowl of lobster meat and other luscious bites, topped with a square of puff pastry. Though we’d expected a cream sauce, it was surprisingly sweet and citrusy, partially because the seafood had been deglazed with Madeira.
“Yours is good but I like mine better!” says Mattison, who was kind about sharing.
We thought we couldn’t eat another bite until we heard these three words: Cannoli Ice Cream. Made by Micalizzi of Bridgeport. All the yummy decadence that made Italian pastry chefs famous, but chilled, with bits of cannoli crust mixed in for texture. More globes to top off a feast of globes, large and small.
The summer sun was long gone, and the river sent up ever-deepening sighs of cool air. The patio was dotted with happy lingerers; behind them, ancient trees strung with lights made the garden area look like an enchanted forest. Chef Hamme had told me that, in the winter months, Stone’s Throw loses half of its dining space – the total, including the outdoor seating areas, is a whopping 2,600 square feet – but there are holdouts who push the al fresco season to its limits. At least one gentleman, he says, can be seen all winter, bundled up and dining outdoors in the face of the icy Housatonic.
Our ride home was deeply peaceful. Mattison joked that her driving-averse husband had told her, “I hope it’s not great,” and now she had to break the news. The next day, I received a note: “This morning, the headlines are as scary as ever, aging bodies are no less decrepit, etc. – but that food was so good, and the people so smart and eager to do their best, the place so beautiful … a wonderful evening.”
Well said, Ms. Mattison.