B istro Mediterranean is the type of place where you could easily become a regular. I discovered it in March and have been back many times since. One of several eateries on Main Street in East Haven, it’s just 10 minutes or so from downtown. A reasonably affordable trip, too—three or four tapas, wine, and dessert for about $60 a couple.
Brothers Leonardo and Gabriel Carreno opened Bistro in April 2011, having worked together for more than a decade in restaurants across Connecticut. They got their start in their father’s small restaurant in Ecuador. Leonardo manages the front of the house, Gabriel is chef. Leonardo says they wanted to create a place where people could relax, make friends, and enjoy tapas and wine. That’s why there’s no tv, the music is festive but low enough to have a conversation, and there’s a recent patio addition for al fresco dining.
On my first visit, I was quickly won over. Crab cakes contained not a fleck of breading, and the red pepper coulis added a bit of heat. For the main course, three huge scallops sat stacked on columns of browned fontina cheese risotto, crisp on the outer edges and creamy on the inside, atop a delicate lobster champagne sauce.
I “dragged” a friend to East Haven the very next night to confirm my discovery, this time focusing on tapas. Dinner started with a generous plate of green and black olives and warm, crusty bread served with tongs from a wicker basket. Waiters made frequent rounds to ask if we would like more of the latter, and we made sure to have enough to mop up every last drop of tapas like the “Chorizo Español,” served in a ceramic dish hot from the oven with white beans, figs, and a Rioja reduction, or the herbed goat cheese in marinara sauce.
The rest of the sauces were light and packed with flavor, such as the paprika aioli with cod fish croquettes, crisp with a steamy, salty filling, and the piquillos pepper sauce with medallions of tender pork tenderloin, bread, and melted tetilla cheese. A grown-up grilled cheese, it was indulgent yet so grease-free that we didn’t feel the need to constantly wipe our hands on our napkins.
Grilled jumbo shrimp over chickpea puree and olive oil invoked a marriage of Spanish and Turkish cuisine, in this case the hummus varietal with larger chunks of chickpea and jalapeño and fresh ginger, which added an herbal note to the plump seafood. Though I normally avoid red peppers, I had to make an exception for the piquillos in Port shallot reduction, stuffed with lamb that’s the consistency of pulled pork—so supple that the mouthfeel was like velvet.
Specials change weekly and, if our experience is any indication, should be tried. The shredded Brussels sprouts salad with truffles, lemon, and Parmesan over fried risotto elevated the unfairly much-maligned member of the cabbage family to a delicacy. Soft shell crab was kicky with a guacamole sauce. Tapas were well timed in rounds of two or three at a time. At about this point, table space became crowded as portions tended to be generous.
Large plates begged to be shared as well, if only because “you have to try this!” The Paella Valencia, a family recipe from South America, brimmed with chorizo, shrimp, chicken, clams, pork, and mussels in a saffron sauce. The only weak spot was the Mediterranean seafood stew over potatoes, a bit too fishy for our taste and lacking in any remarkable flavor. Better to try one of the daily ravioli. On a recent visit with a vegetarian we tried the well-balanced but decadent Panzotti de Calabaza, filled with squash and a butter-sage-almond sauce. Salads, such as the grilled Portobello mushrooms over arugula with roasted garlic sherry vinaigrette, were massive and filling (there’s not a leaf of iceberg on the menu, thankfully).
For dessert, profiteroles were a hit, with fingers running down the plate to get every last bit of chocolate. Bananas Carmelisiada surprised with its textures, the top layer similar to a crème brulee. The flan was not overly sweet, though we wished it was creamier and less firm. The crepes, as my friend Lydia put it, “tasted like apple pie rolled up.”
Wine doesn’t break the bank, with an excellent selection of glasses under $10. Sangria, a true test of the character of a place because it can easily be done on the cheap, was refreshing but not cloyingly sweet, with rinds on the diced oranges, skin on the green apples, and not a trace of canned fruit cocktail.
Like their sangria, Bistro Mediterranean is the real thing.
Bistro Mediterranean and Tapas Bar
383 Main Street, East Haven (map)
Mon-Thurs 11:30am-10pm, Fri-Sat 11:30am-11pm, Sun noon-10pm
(203) 467-2500 or (203) 467-4300
Written and photographed by Jane Rushmore.