Summertime dining is all about being outdoors – suggest a sidewalk cafe, riverside bistro, or anything located on the Sound and I’m there. But when the temps take a dip, I gravitate to restaurants that require long, winding drives on leaf dappled roads and offer lush menus filled with cozy, comforting favorites. I had heard rumblings about Bailey’s Backyard in Ridgefield for a few months – some of my fellow-foodies had been singing the praises of this tiny, farm-to-table-gem. So when the opportunity arose to visit – coincidentally on the first night the mercury dipped into the 30’s – I wrapped myself in a cozy sweater and hit the road.
Quietly sited on a quaint block off Ridgefield’s Main Street, Sal Bagliavio’s charming restaurant is the prototypical “neighborhood darling.” Since it’s opening in 1999, Bailey’s Backyard has been a local haunt for quality food in a casual environment. With bespoke tables that evoke picnic benches and strings of Edison bulbs dotting the room with amber light, the two cozy dining areas that make up the restaurant provide a linger-friendly spot for both intimate dinners and fun-loving groups.
But after 14 years with an established following, Bagliavio felt the need for a change – and that change came in the form of a new Executive Chef – CIA-trained Forrest Pasternack. Pasternack’s passion for seasonal ingredients procured from local farms and old-fashioned kitchen artistry are elevating Bailey’s Backyard from a Ridgefield hangout to a destination for culinary junkies.
The farm-to-table buzzword has been tossed around so much it’s almost become cliché, but Pasternack is the real deal. He’s developed relationships with farms from New York to Vermont and sources the finest, freshest items for his menu. Back in the kitchen Pasternack layers flavor and texture with a deft hand, preserving the seasonal integrity of the food while highlighting his own creativity.
Our dinner began with a cocktail (natch)…and what better on a chilly autumn eve than a bourbon. Crafted by mixologist Bryan Walsh, the “Mark Twain Manhattan” combines house-infused vanilla bourbon with cinnamon syrup and a drop of Vermont maple syrup -lovely for sipping while we perused the Market Tasting menu. A stack of home baked Irish soda bread was brought to the table – studded with currants and a generous helping of caraway seeds, the bread was glazed with brown sugar butter and served as a delightful accompaniment to our first course, a creamy, pureed butternut squash soup. The soup, made from Ridgefield grown squash (Veronica’s Garden), was poured over a honeyed crème fraiche and topped with toasted pumpkin seeds which added texture and a surprising crunch to the rich soup.
Feeling sufficiently warm and toasty, the next course, slow roasted Berkshire pork belly with baby pink shrimp, was a savory counterpoint – the nicely salted, melt-in-your-mouth pork was placed over a pillow of buttery, artisanal grits, slivers of charred baby bell peppers topped it all off with smoky notes. Absolutely amazing – the only regret is that there wasn’t more of it – while the serving was supremely generous, I could have devoured three more helpings!
Next, a fresh salad to cleanse the palate. Pasternack’s roasted “Ida Red” apple salad was a tribute to local farms – apple, carrots, endive, and black currents, were all sourced within Connecticut. Even the dressing, tangy buttermilk with a pinch of fresh dill, was prepared with dairy and herbs from our home state.
As an ode to our proximity to the Sound, Pasternack served grilled citrus marinated swordfish winterized with hearty potato puree infused a whiff of rosemary and a puff of saffron mousseline. Tender and flavorful, the fish was delicately presented and brightened with sautéed Romano beans.
Pasternack likes to play with flavor and texture, and nowhere was this more evident than in his Balsamic Glazed Boneless Short Ribs cooked to fall-off-the-bone perfection. The hearty ribs were punctuated by crunchy Spanish black radish and a feather-light puree of hybrid rutabaga and topped with chick peas and a sprinkle of smoked paprika. Sweet, salty, creamy, crunchy…Pasternack hit a home run with this one.
And just when you can eat no more….here comes dessert. The first, heavenly Nutella mousse served with a dollop of whipped cream (from Arethusa Farms in Litchfield, of course) and homemade chocolate crumble (serving dish scraped clean!). And the second, pumpkin brioche with whipped pumpkin custard – was French-toast-like and surprisingly light – almost like having breakfast for dinner!
The menu varies seasonally, with daily specials, and a weekly chef’s tasting menu – but expect a consistent variation of comfort-inspired entrees. Lunch is also served with a focus on salads, sandwiches, and burgers (topped with Pasternack’s homemade pickles and ketchup) and brunch is offered on Sunday.
From the ride along one of New England’s scenic roads, to expertly nuanced American cuisine…Bailey’s Backyard is an experience to savor.