When 116 Crown opened its doors in 2008, it inspired shock and awe among even the most jaded sophisticates. Writers described its retro-modern interior as “James Bond’s rumpus room” and “space-age meets the stone age;” the New York Times raved that 116 was a “chic, urban place where upscale meets pop culture.” Its kitchen produced exotic little dishes like bone marrow with grey sea salt, but what really distinguished 116 Crown from other trendy eateries was its bar offerings. At the cutting edge of the cocktail revolution, owner and mixologist John Ginetti wowed Elm City imbibers with a many-paged menu of crazy-fabulous drinks with names like Dr. No and The New Black, and unheard-of ingredients like creme de violette, organic egg foam, bird pepper and Death’s Door White Whiskey, to name a few.
The restaurant’s fan base was immediate and enthusiastic. “When we first opened, people were blown away,” recalls John with a film-star smile. The bar crowd was especially impressed with John’s potions, which, he explains, include some familiar flavor profiles but with added dimensions, including textures and playful garnishes in addition to those unexpected ingredients. The drink list was, and continues to be, divided into categories such as “Contemporary, Nuanced & Unexpected,” “Aromatic & Subtle,” and “For Professionals,” and is constantly curated and updated with the kind of care that’s usually reserved for million-dollar wine cellars. “The level of customer sophistication has increased dramatically,” explains John. So has the availability of once-scarce boutique spirits; in fact, John estimates that he now has 30 percent more bottles to play with than when he first developed the cocktail menu.
Over time, the restaurant side of 116 experienced a rather strange phenomenon. Unlike most popular eateries, which hustle and buzz between the hours of 6 and 8, The Crown became increasingly quiet during prime time. “Pre-dinner and after-dinner was fine, right up until midnight,” says John. “But during dinner there was almost a lull instead of a rush.”
The reason? His conclusion was simple: not enough substance on the menu. From the beginning, 116 could be counted on for fine charcuterie and cheese selections plus an array of fascinating small plates. But building a dinner from these components wasn’t always easy, or affordable.
Enter Will Talamelli. The young chef—who is also an artist, musician, videographer and BMX trick-rider—burst onto the downtown dining scene in 2010 as head chef of Press 200, bringing pitch-perfect cuisine to a small-plates bistro. Among Press 200’s fans were the staffers at 116, two blocks away. “A wave of folks who worked here were so impressed, we’d all go to see Will on our day off,” remembers John.
When Press 200 closed—“It had identity issues,” explains Will—the chef worked briefly at a Ridgefield restaurant but missed the New Haven scene. And so, a collaboration was born. Without unseating Chef Mike “Denny” Denisiewicz from 116’s kitchen, Chef Will came on board early this year to fulfill a request from John: attract a dinner crowd. “This is not an easy place to come and cook,” says John. “It’s all, ‘Oh my god, the drinks are so good.’ My challenge to Will was, ‘Make them talk about the food.’”
116 Crown’s new menu made its debut during April’s New Haven Restaurant Week. And I’m happy to report that it is an out-of-the-park home run. Our party of four women, spanning several generations, were treated to samplings of nearly every new dish, and we were deeply impressed; in fact, one of my guests’ tasting notes was, “This food is so good I want to make out with the chef.” (Yes, okay, there were cocktails involved.)
Highlights of our feast included a gorgeous hanger steak served with purple potatoes, Brussels sprouts and abalone mushrooms, which John calls “the best dish on the menu”; we also devoured a succulent lamb dish with fava beans, bacon and mushrooms, as well as branzino accompanied by a mind-blowing eggplant caponata. Small plates are still available—don’t miss East Coast oysters with a refreshing mignonette, or the Bianco Pizzette. So are snacks, such as a selection of Kalamata olives in sesame oil. The charcuterie and cheese selections have been updated by the chef, and thus the 116 tradition of sharing the Picnic platter, featuring all of the menu’s meats, cheeses and paté, continues (and holds at $57—worth it!).
The four of us are generally dainty and discriminating eaters, but something came over us at 116 Crown—we were suddenly competing for every morsel, yanking back near-finished plates from startled servers so that not one scrap was left behind. We even finished dessert, including a dangerously delicious Smoked Chocolate Mousse.
Clearly, Chef Will is clicking at 116 Crown. He tells me his favorite dish to make is the pasta, which changes every day, is always made from scratch and is usually vegetarian, to satisfy the restaurant’s many veggie guests (there’s also a daily “Tasting of Vegetables,” market-fresh and served over saffron couscous). “I’m enjoying the obligation here,” says the 26-year-old chef. “So much goes into the cocktails, there is so much composition, it was my responsibility to do that for the food.”
Bravo, Chef. 116 Crown’s kitchen is indeed ready for prime time.
116 Crown Street, New Haven (map)
203-777-3116 | email@example.com
Sun, Tues-Thurs 5pm-1am, Fri-Sat 5pm-2am
Note: kitchen closes every night at midnight.
Written and photographed by Todd Lyon.