Chaplin in Shelton serves a fine classic menu in a timeless setting


Approach Chaplin from either direction of Howe Avenue in downtown Shelton and you’ll see, predictably, two different sides. Seen uphill or from Center Street, and the main feature of the restaurant next to its sign is the corner patio, cut into the first floor of the building, and filled with diners enjoying the midsummer air during my first trip in June.

Walk down Howe and through the front doors and your first sight will be green and black subway tiles over a wide archway like Grand Central’s Oyster Bar. Above a black marble bar, light bulbs hang from brass cymbals with martinis tinkling below; Zelda Fitzgerald via Zildjian.

I order a martini with a house mix of dry vermouth and watch the food come out for the other bar patrons – oysters here, polenta fries there and a tower made of oysters, clams, prawns, mussels and seafood salad. Once my mate arrives, we are ushered into the dining room where overhead beams are bound in wood, and a floor-to-ceiling flower mural adds a summery vibe, and large windows let in the last rays of sunshine of the day.

We order the mixed olives and roasted Marcona almonds dusted with chili powder to start, while we peruse the menu, and add a Guess Who for her. The latter is a cocktail made with vodka, Rinomato Aperitivo Deciso, lime juice and hibiscus syrup. Almonds are a crunchy, salty, and tangy snack with the martini, but olives, simply made with just rosemary and thyme, steal our attention as we steal them from each other. The Guess Who is delicious, strongly aromatic, slightly bitter, with the lime and Italian aperitif working its way through the floral sweetness.

The small plates section of the menu continues to appeal. We pick the grilled asparagus, and the aperitifs with marrow. The asparagus arrives plated with homemade cheese made from sour milk with lemon juice instead of vinegar, topped with grated lemon zest and a little olive oil. The cheese is remarkably fresh and creamy, and the combination of classic citrus and asparagus flavors is enhanced in the dish.

Balanced on a thick slice of sourdough, the roasted marrowbone stands out with the colors of microgreens and Calabrian red peppers, over candied garlic and hon shimeji mushrooms. The marrow, actually meat and garlic butter as served, has extra umami delivered via these mushrooms, with crunch and spice in every bite of the toppings. It is a delicious and attractive dish to start a meal for omnivores.

Chaplin’s executive chef, Dylan Hansen, previously worked at the Roia in New Haven as head chef, where the focus then was on revamping the menu into a wide range of smaller dining options. I ask if he took that experience to heart when creating the menu at Chaplin. “We wanted to design a menu that was not only familiar to the area, but gave people options other than the high-priced steaks and chops. I always overorder when I eat out; I like to try other chefs’ cooking and give guests the opportunity to eat like that.

Raw sea bass options take up space at the top of the menu, along with appetizer options ranging from Bibb salad to steak tartare and Prince Edward Island mussels with grilled chorizo. Further on, more generous plates: Bell & Evans half-chicken, vegetable risotto, charred octopus…

A specialty jumps out at us: the candied salmon breast. The dish lands on our table with pink fish joined by white beans, olives and fennel on a toasted sourdough. It’s a bouquet of dense flavors that stand in harmony on the dense bread. A winner.

“We have the ability to change the menu every day, we print the menu in-house,” Hansen told me during a follow-up visit. As an example of what is available in late spring, he offers a dish of peaches poached with local chanterelles in Pedro Ximénez vinegar with olive oil and spearmint over stracciatella cheese. There is an immediate sensation of peaches and cream with the sweet stracciatella and stone fruits, everything is so fresh, the flavors burst. The cheese I had in the test dish wasn’t local, but Chef Hansen says a lot of the fresh cheese you’ll see on the summer menu – stracciatella, mozzarella, etc. – will be homemade.

Going from sous chef to executive chef for Barcelona in several places, and traveling to Spain as a result, Hansen says, has informed his approach to food. “You have something so simple, yet the flavors are so bold, taking one ingredient and figuring out how to make it shine in so many ways. This approach, in addition to adding some of the gastronomic aspects of Roia, I am still learning every day.

The bar program is overseen by Francisco Sanchez, who pairs the chanterelles dish with a whiskey tart he makes with blood orange liqueur, blood orange juice, egg white and garnished with another slice of dried blood orange. Massively lemony, but smoothed out by swirling it around with that egg, the drink is smooth and potent.

Chaplin himself is the brainchild of owner Hartin Ballabani, a familiar face to some at his other restaurant in the building, Tacomida. He says there was room in Shelton for something more upscale, and people told him they wanted to see a concept for that purpose. The community reacted, he reports.

This arch above the bar, by the way, Ballabani noticed it as a disused architectural form left over from the construction of the structure many years before, and saved it to recap the face of the building.

Hansen echoes the owner. “Everyone in the community has been very supportive, it starts with happy hour and oysters and continues through weekend nights. The menu was created to be familiar – meatballs, slice of bacon, linguine and clams – we wanted to bring that, but do it with quality ingredients, great presentations, to give people that familiarity but with an experience top of the line.

A look at the bottom portion of the menu, labeled “Butcher Box,” contains only strips, tenderloins and even a 42-ounce Tomahawk, but Chef Hansen doesn’t consider Chaplin a steakhouse. “I see this as almost two different menus, this familiar local experience with fun, seasonal ingredients, and this beef and pork program with premium meats.”

On my first visit, I let the night take its course, and ended up with an almost Spanish tapas-style dinner, with several small plates, and a few glasses. You can do Chaplin whatever you want: come in for a couple of dishes and a few drinks at happy hour, then carry on wherever your evening takes you, or schedule a business dinner with steak and chops to scratch the high end of the day. a three- figured bill.

My trip home is a mission to try a steak or entree, and I can’t take my eyes off the pan-fried duck on the menu. That’s where we cry out, because it’s a great choice. Served on a bed of mushrooms and watercress, the fatty and savory duck with its crispy layer of seared fat is served with a potato steak, drizzled with pan jús.

When asked what I thought of my first visit by Chef Hansen, the first words that come out of my mouth are, “It’s almost a mood-based meal. He says that was exactly what he was looking to do: create options for diners, including apps, drinks and entrees, steaks and sides, yes, but on any level that they feel right now.

Staff, like everywhere, is an issue, but Hansen’s position is that leaders who give their staff space to create are the type of places staff want to go and stay. He says they want to start making their own fresh pasta, butter and more cheeses by the fall in Chaplin, if not sooner. He singles out Sous Chef Zach Pinto and says they have some exciting new options for the future.

“I’m still learning, and I want that for my staff here as well.”

Chaplin
247 Howe Ave, Shelton
203-538-5045, chaplindowntown.com, @chaplin_shelton on Instagram
Open daily for dinner
Wheelchair accessible




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