The bone came out first. Then Matt Creason skinned the pork belly and placed it in a brine of salt, sugar, and spices. It lingered there for several days before landing in a frying pan in the kitchen of a new restaurant on State Street.
Creason, a chef with 20 years’ experience, served up the beer-braised pork belly at Oak Haven Table and Bar, a new farm-to-table restaurant on State Street near the corner of Bishop Street. It’s one of the locally sourced offerings on the restaurant’s menu of tapas-style dishes.
Childhood friends Albert Greenwood and Craig Hotchkiss opened Oak Haven on June 11. It seeks to blend the local with the cosmopolitan, bringing culinary concepts from Manhattan and Miami to produce from New England, or at least nearby.
The restaurant aims to source its dishes as locally as possible, Greenwood said. “The growing season’s harsh though, so we can’t be completely sustainable in Connecticut,” he explained. Instead, the restaurant turns to five states along the East Coast – Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Maine, and Pennsylvania.
The pork belly meal Creason cooked up the other day (click on the video to watch him prepare it) featured meat from Green Tree Packing Company, a wholesale meat distributor in Passaic, N.Y. The restaurant’s vegetables are from a distributor who sources from New England farms. Creason said that after he brines his pork belly for a few days, he cuts it into portions for preparation.
As he prepared the meal, he placed a portion in a saute pan, added some of the brine—beer, spices, sugar, and other ingredients—and placed it in the oven for a few minutes.
He then turned his attention to the frisee and red watercress, the bitter greens that go with the belly. He dressed them with champagne and shallot vinaigrette and added sea salt and black pepper.
He reached into the oven and moved the pork belly to the stove top. Creason seared the pork belly, then covered it with Narragansett beer, butter, and sherry vinegar. The beer concoction reduced to a “lacquer” as he spooned it onto the meat.
He gently dropped a panko-breaded poached egg into the fryer. Frying, he said, renders the egg soft on the inside, crispy on the outside.
Finally, the plating. Creason placed the belly on a bed of the dressed frisee and watercress. Next came the poached egg, golden brown and hot out of the fryer. Sprigs of chervil added a fresh green touch.
Creason tailors the menu to the availability of local ingredients. He plans to incorporate corn, which is plentiful this time of year, into multiple dishes. Mushrooms, on the other hand, are scarcer and won’t make much of an appearance.
With each ingredient, Creason said, the restaurant buys limited quantities to ensure produce stays fresh. “We don’t overstock,” he said. When a dish runs out, it runs out. “We won’t cut corners just to have something available,” Greenwood said.
As the seasons change, so will the menu. In the restaurant’s initial weeks, dishes have already started rotating, Creason said. The tapas style of the menu gives customers a chance to sample many ingredients before they go out of season, Hotchkiss said. He estimates that 30 percent of dishes will change while the other 70 percent will remain constant.
In addition to its produce, Oak Haven has other local offerings on the menu. Peter Lupi Bakery delivers fresh bread each day, after-dinner coffee comes from Willoughby’s, and instead of handing out mints, the restaurant offers Pez candies made in Orange. Kettle corn comes from Hamden. Ice cream from a woman two streets away will soon find its way on to the menu, Greenwood said.
Greenwood and Hotchkiss both grew up in West Haven and attended college nearby – Greenwood at the University of New Haven, Hotchkiss at Quinnipiac University. “We’ve known each other since we were zero,” Hotchkiss said.
Greenwood’s father was born right up the street from the restaurant, said Greenwood’s grandmother Anne, who was in the restaurant for an early dinner with her husband Al.
Greenwood and Hotchkiss credit the four years they spent in Florida with broadening their horizons and preparing them to open Oak Haven. Though Greenwood has spent 15 years in the restaurant industry – he got his start as a dishwasher at age 15 and later earned a degree in restaurant management – he said working at a prominent Miami restaurant showed him what concepts, ideas, and dishes would work. Hotchkiss worked as a sommelier, rising through the ranks to run the beverage side of three restaurants. The experience helped him craft Oak Haven’s wine, beer, and cocktail menu, he said. The restaurant regularly features wine tastings and bourbon flights.
“In Miami, [concepts like farm-to-table] are standard, but it seems new here,” Hotchkiss said.
Based on observations from Miami, Greenwood and Hotchkiss provided Creason with a list of items they knew would sell well – yellowfin tuna, beef short ribs, duck, figs. Creason determined the rest. “He was used to working in corporate places where he had to follow guidelines,” Hotchkiss said. “Here, he can be creative.”
For each of the desired ingredients, Creason created accompaniments. Heirloom beans and lavender jus for the chicken. A roasted potato cake wrapped in hardwood smoked bacon for the salmon. Spicy agave and lime for the hominy.
As for the pork belly and greens, at the cut of a fork, the egg broke over the dish, its yolk oozing. The pork belly and egg made for a rich bite, cut by the bitterness of the greens. The vinaigrette’s sweetness added complexity.