A new local tour outfit called Taste of New Haven promises “Food and Drink Tours.” When it brought a crowd to the Ninth Square Saturday, it delivered local history, architecture and culture as well.
Saturday’s tour, lead by Taste of New Haven owner and local historian Colin M. Caplan, included 24 adults, some from as far away as Canada and Boston, and one of New Haven’s youngest foodies in 3-year old Amane Kumamoto.
The tour’s first stop at Yolande’s Bistro & Creperie began with an icebreaker as all present introduced themselves and stated their favorite foods. Apizza, or “ah-BEETZ” as locals refer to it, was the strong favorite. For Caplan, the tours are “social events” as much as tasting events; he considers getting the cohort to feel comfortable at the outset a requisite ingredient of the tour’s success.
By all appearances, the area has reached a critical mass of entertainment sustainability and, with its natural assets of historic buildings and creative promoters, is poised to do even better. Ninth Square is listed on the National Registry of Historic places, with a mix of 19th and early 20th century commercial buildings and is, according to the On 9 New Haven website,“a hub of chic dining, eclectic shops, art galleries, jazz clubs, and architecture studios that mix with an active nightclub scene.”
At Yolande’s, amid the welcoming decor of brightly colored walls and French art posters, tour guests got a bonus—a cooking lesson in crepe-making and an opportunity to make their own delicate crepes of sugar and lemon, Champagne grape, homemade strawberry jam, or Nutella, the popular Italian-made hazelnut chocolate spread.
“You don’t eat if you don’t make your own,” said an assertive Yolande Lacan just before serving up her first few samples. Crepe’s were washed down with “Angry Orchard,” an English-style hard cider that Lacan liberated from its corked bottle with a ceremonial and efficiently executed saber swipe.
At 139 Orange St., Caplan encouraged the tour to look carefully at the architectural details of the Antebellum-era Palladium building built in 1855, which he said once serving as the Young Men’s Institute. “The brackets were a trademark of architect Henry Austin, with the sandstone elements mined in Portland, Connecticut,” noted Caplan.
Not every stop on the tour was at a restaurant, though most stops did include some form of tasting. At Elm City Market, located at Chapel and State streets, Caplan explained the history of the complex that towers over the market at 32 stories high. He described the area as part of a “node”—a place where one can survive without ever leaving. Elm City Marketing Manager Amy Christensen explained the store’s co-op status and presented a platter of fresh fruits—blood oranges and Jamaican Ugli fruit (citrus) and dates. They were quickly snapped up as she discussed advantages of buying organic produce.
Olde School Saloon and Bistro was a short walk up to 418 State St., a restaurant known for its live music. While it was a little early for music, the tour group did enjoy small crocks of spicy pork sausage with escarole and beans and a Sea Hag IPA (India Pale Ale) brewed by New England Brewing Company in nearby Woodbridge. During the tasting, Caplan mentioned the connection of co-owner Jeff Arnold to his historical New Haven descendant, Benedict Arnold, regaling the tour with Revolutionary tales of New Haven residents beating the British out of town—with booze. (You had to be there.)
A chaser to the classic Italian comfort food was a tour of the Old School Saloon’s retro-basement, where 8-track tape players and old bottles of Foxon Soda inspired nostalgia in those old enough to remember. Of special interest was a dank, stone-encased chamber with an arched ceiling and velvet portrait of Elvis. Caplan said that a similar structure (without the Elvis), whose function had been incorrectly identified after being unearthed, was actually made for coal storage, the fuel of the era.
The comfortable sofas at Luck & Levity, “purveyors of home brewing and fermentation supplies” on Court Street, provided a welcomed respite with host Scott Vignola. The tour tasted a variety of bottled beers (brewed elsewhere) and learned about brewing processes and the community building at the heart of the business and its owner, a former Peace Corps volunteer. The business is part library, art gallery, supply store, and meeting hall. The amalgam is a backdrop for like-minded brewers and community organizations in need of meeting space. For tour guests, it was time to recharge in preparation for the last two stops of the day.
After pouring into the small Scappo Merkato, an Italian “deli” brimming with personality on Orange Street, the tour sampled “The Parma,” a sandwich made with Prosciutto di Parma, homemade fig spread, balsamic glaze and goat cheese. Guests learned about the history of the family business, which includes Skappo, an Italian wine bar around the corner on Crown Street. Some tour guests took the opportunity to purchase homemade and imported specialties they are unlikely to find elsewhere.
The final stop of the tour was at Bentara, Ninth Square restauranteurs and pioneers who took a chance on the Orange Street location in 1997 when it was a languishing, dusty commercial district still untouched by visionaries like head chef and co-owner “Jeff” Ghazali. Ghazali,said he disregarded the basic real estate tenet of location, location, location, to establish his Malaysian restaurant, which blends Indian, Asian, Chinese, Dutch, Portuguese, and English cuisines. The tour was served a buffet sampler of Chicken Satay, Poh Pia Goreng or Vegetarian spring rolls—with sweet chili sauce, Mee Hoon Goreng-fried vermicelli rice noodles, and Roti Murtabak-spiced ground beef in ghee bread with curry lentil sauce and sweet red pickled onion. Mini Lychee martini’s were a perfect companion to the melange of spices and foods characteristic of the Malaysian cuisine served on the Taste of New Haven On 9 inaugural tour.
Food, fitness and fun blogger Caitlin Croswell a veteran of Caplan’s tours, said she enjoyed the tour’s program: “Putting Elm City Market between two restaurants and Luck & Levity between two restaurants was great pacing.” Caplan said that taking the tour, which draws visitors from all quarters of the state and beyond, is great for tourists and for buttressing the local economy, but is also an opportunity for New Haven area residents to “be a tourist in your own town and experience New Haven in a new way.”