NEW HAVEN — Peruse the pages of the menu at Miya’s Sushi and you wonder whether the hefty document was once written as a dissertation down the road at Yale University. Unlike most sushi joints, where you are handed a slim piece of paper basically asking you to choose between sushi and sashimi, Miya’s 60-plus pages overflow with socially conscious tidbits on global warming, indigenous cultures, and overfishing. The Kiribati Sashimi, for example, is slices of Connecticut scup, or porgie, sprinkled with Kiribati sea salt and other spices. The menu reads: “At only 8 to 12 feet above sea level, Kiribati may become the first nation to be completely engulfed by the ocean due to climate change.”
Heavy on the PC hype, the menu was made for wide-eyed undergraduates ready to change the world. Far more cynical types might not have the patience to digest the rhetoric. That is, until they actually taste the sashimi, a tender piece of fish with just the right amount of seasoning. My party of four sucked down each piece with an ecstatic sigh, yearning for more.
“Ready for an invasive species?” asks our waiter, pointing to the bright red Asian shore crabs served with the crabmeat-filled Kanibaba roll.
Innovative cuisine is not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of New Haven. For many Bostonians, the city is a pit stop on the way to Manhattan, the place to down a white clam pizza at Frank Pepe’s or Sally’s on Wooster Street. But thanks to a trio of chefs who have taken full advantage of Connecticut’s bounty of seafood and farms, New Haven has quietly blossomed into a foodie mecca. This has pleasantly surprised transplants like Jessica Bloom, who moved here two years ago from Boston’s South End.
“When I told people in Boston that I was moving to New Haven, the standard response was: ‘Oh, well at least they have good pizza!’ However, I have been blown away by some truly amazing meals here, especially when it comes to restaurants where the chefs create their menus based on food they found at the local farmers’ market or that they foraged themselves,” says Bloom, who will be attending the food studies program at New York University in the fall.
As chef and co-owner of the restaurants Zinc and Kitchen Zinc, Denise Appel has led the farm-to-table movement in the city. On any given Wednesday in summer and fall, she can be found loading up on fresh produce and locally raised meat at the downtown farmer’s market. Depending on the week, this might include beets and radicchio from Urban Oaks organic farm in New Britain, strawberries from Rose’s Berry Farm in Glastonbury, and sausage from Eagle Wood Farms in Barkhamsted.
While it might be easy to buy organic greens, it’s a challenge to combine them with the duck, red onions, and fried wontons found in Zinc’s smoked duck nachos. Drizzled with chipotle aioli and lime crema, it has become one of the restaurant’s signature dishes and the ideal start to a meal inside the stylish interior. Not far from the New Haven Green, Zinc is one of those restaurants Yale students dream about while dining on dorm food, the place to bring mom and dad and their credit cards when they come to visit.
Another tasty appetizer was the Saigon beef lettuce wraps, where the chili garlic sauce adds the necessary spice. For entrees, the lightly breaded barramundi was served over a bed of asparagus, paired with a leek and whole grain mustard tart. The day scallops were also tender, smoked with thick chunks of bacon, atop a heaping mound of caraway-spiced rye berries.
Walk the entirety of the Yale campus and you will reach the East Rock neighborhood, home to Caseus Fromagerie Bistro. Owner Jason Sobocinski worked at the Boston artisanal cheese store Formaggio Kitchen while he pursued his master’s in the gastronomy program at Boston University. He returned home in early 2008 to open his own fromagerie and French bistro. The jars of cornichons on the wooden tables surrounding the bar are a sign that he takes his food seriously.
“I wanted to educate people about the many varieties of cheese by sprinkling them throughout the menu,” says Sobocinski.
One bite of the creamy bonne bouche cheese from Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery, crumbled atop a salad of arugula, beets, and roasted pistachios, and I want to learn more. The slightly charred day scallops coupled with the shavings of a zesty Tarentaise cheese from Thistle Hill Farm in Vermont is a dish I would seek out every week if I lived here.
The small space serves a mix of students, professors, and locals who come for a casual and affordable lunch or dinner, washed down with New England microbrews. Sobocinski also hosts a show on the Cooking Channel on Thursday nights called “The Big Cheese,” and he runs a food truck around the city. His most popular dish is a mac ’n’ cheese that puts Kraft to shame. It’s a mix of raclette, gruyere, comté, chevre, and cheddar cheese topped with brioche bread crumbs. For stressed-out students, it is the best kind of comfort food.
Bun Lai, owner of Miya’s Sushi, doesn’t have to go far to find his Asian shore crabs. The invasive species has been showing up on the beaches of Long Island Sound since the 1980s. Lai’s mother first opened Miya’s in 1982, but it was Bun who created the sustainable sushi menu, one that has reaped accolades from such places as the Monterey Bay Aquarium for his determination to serve seafood that has not been overfished. You won’t find eel, farm-raised salmon, bluefin tuna, octopus, or red snapper on the menu. In its place are tilapia, scup, and invasive species that can create an ecological imbalance such as Japanese knotweed and European green crabs. Devouring an Asian shore crab is one way to keep the population down.
Lai harvests his oysters and seaweed, often diving himself, off the coast of Connecticut’s Thimble Islands. You can taste the seaweed with spoonfuls of mushrooms in the miso soup. The oysters are served on the half-shell with pickled daikon radish. Vegetarian options like Charlie Chan’s broccoli with roasted garlic and black beans make up more than half the menu. Yet, it’s the seafood choices that are the most enticing. The sakura sashimi is Lai’s homage to the Inuits. The scup, seasoned with sea salt, lime, and fresh beet pulp, is served partially frozen, “the way the Inuits do in the wintertime,” the menu notes.
“We call it fish sorbet,” says our waiter. Call the dish what you will, but one bite and you realize it works. Almost a century ago, Frank Pepe put white clams on his pizza and today, people still line up for hours for a taste. A new wave of innovators in New Haven have put their culinary imprint on the town, creating the same sense of excitement. All you have to do is get off the highway.