Third-Time Charms

Third-Time Charms

I closed my eyes as the wash of gin and honeydew hit my tongue. It brought me back to June, when the first rays of the season were crowning our little inlet city. The rush of Aperol carried me through the long and lazy afternoons that followed, and the fresh lime jolted me back into my barstool at present. Summer in a glass, I thought.

But I’d had to work up to it. Still recovering from Cocktail Week, I began my experience of Siena New Haven, the newly launched Italian restaurant off the lobby of The Blake Hotel, with a soft launch of my own: a mocktail called the Birds & Bees ($14). It was a riff on a Bee’s Knees, subbing in non-alcoholic gin to go with the traditional lemon and honey and non-traditional lavender syrup. The lavender was the star, the honey and lemon the support, with the gin, a true zero-alcohol alternative, floating somewhere in back.

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New Haven’s is the third Siena and, in some ways, a far cry from the smaller, cozier, more old-school experience offered by the celebrated original in Stamford, where most of the staff are from Italy and the menu is, too. The Blake Hotel version has a different personality, from fashion sense to literal taste. Retaining the inspired design of Hamilton Park, its predecessor at The Blake, Siena New Haven is modern and airy, with aquatic blue accents and an elegant flow between the lobby, bar and open-kitchen dining area. And while the menu headers are canonical (Cold and Hot Antipasti, Crostini, Housemade Pasta), some dishes, like the Grilled Peaches & Burrata ($18) and the Sweet Corn Ravioli ($28), step outside the canon.

While I was perusing the menu, executive chef Foster Lukas snagged a neighboring barstool and dished about his thinking. “Instead of being dogmatic about Italian food,” he said, “we’re taking inspiration and some liberties, focusing mainly on seasonality, quality of ingredients, and cohesiveness to a dish. Not letting ideas get in the way of tradition but also not letting tradition get in the way of great flavors that go together.”

I decided to dabble in both sides of that approach, moving from my mocktail to an Aperol cocktail far removed from a Spritz: the Melon Mama ($15). Made with Ford’s gin, Aperol, lime and muddled honeydew, the fruit especially made this cocktail sing; the drink was fresh and light and easy to enjoy.

It was a perfect preamble to my dinner, which started with the Sicilian Arancini ($14) and the Whipped Truffle Ricotta Crostini ($16). The arancini were bite-sized balls of risotto with mozzarella and a bit of tomato sauce mixed right into the blend, a ramekin of sweet pomodoro in the middle—basic but reasonably satisfying. The crostini dish was a standout, featuring lightly sauteed wild mushrooms on fresh herbed and truffled ricotta over darkly toasted, thick-cut Italian bread. The effect was remarkably light and composed for such an earthy dish.

For my entrée, I ordered the seasonal Sweet Corn Ravioli ($28). The plump pockets of pasta were filled to bursting with corn and ricotta and swam in a sweet corn broth. A pile of roasted grape tomatoes, pancetta and shaved parmesan brought salt and acid that cut through the sweetness of the corn without diminishing its summery freshness. Overall the dish was both light and rich, another impressive balancing act.

At one point, I slipped up to the sixth floor to check out the rooftop bar, High George, which has also been affected by Siena’s arrival. Amid potted plants and earth tones and a retractable roof and windows, the cocktail menu is aligned with Siena’s downstairs. (Both also offer Happy Hour specials—a selection of reduced-price apps and drinks from 3 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays.) But the food offerings up top are totally different, part of a shorter and much less Italian list of small plates, sandwiches and a skillet cookie. The roof is definitely a space for drinking and snacking and socializing rather than a full Siena dining experience.

And there really is such a thing as a Siena dining experience. The brand has a noteworthy reputation for hospitality in Fairfield County. Over the course of its 20-plus years, the original Stamford location has attracted a strong following including a number of celebrity regulars (Gene Wilder!), while the second location, in Norwalk, is equally well-regarded. The impact of Siena’s third restaurant and first foray into our own county remains to be seen, but, only a few weeks in, the execution is high and the expectation too.

Written by Anna Konya. Images 1 and 3, of the Sweet Corn Ravioli and the Melon Mama, photographed by Anna Konya. Images 2 and 4, of the Siena dining area (when it was Hamilton Park) and High George, provided courtesy of The Blake Hotel.

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