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    Monday, March 20, 2023

    Why The Essex restaurant just relocated to Old Saybrook

    Line Cook Sharon Corso works on piping red crab agnolotti at The Essex restaurant´s new location in Old Saybrook Tuesday. Head chef and owner Colt Taylor recently reopened the restaurant after moving it from Centerbrook. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Why The Essex restaurant just relocated to Old Saybrook

    You step off Main Street in Old Saybrook, into a restaurant space that has the freshness and spark of someplace new. The walls are a rich, deep blue, and the sumptuously comfortable chairs are a similar shade. White clothes cover the tables. Behind the bar is a stunning marine-themed mural. Next to the bar is an open kitchen, where, on a recent day, workers are gearing up for the dinner crowd to come.

    This is the new site for The Essex, an acclaimed fine-dining restaurant that moved from Centerbrook to Old Saybrook earlier this month. This locale, at 247 Main St., is across from the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center and was previously a bakery.

    Chef/co-owner Colt Taylor opened The Essex in 2017 on Main Street in Centerbrook, in the same building where he debuted Los Charros Cantina in 2018.

    (During COVID-19, Taylor temporarily established a pandemic-response restaurant in that structure to create jobs for kitchen workers: the Essex Public Market and Food Hall, which featured simple, affordable food geared toward delivery and takeout.)

    Los Charros remains at that site and now has an expanded bar, thanks to the space freed up by The Essex’s departure.

    The new Essex continues to use sustainably sourced and local ingredients and to offer “Modern American cuisine that draws inspiration from the land, sea and deep heritage of the Connecticut River Valley, alongside a legion of international flavors." Taylor says it offers the staples that people came to love at the Centerbrook site and that he feels strongly about — steak frites (price depends on what meat a customer chooses), the signature Essex clam chowder ($15), and the lobster and beet fusilli ($22), for instance. There are also the entrees section and salad section, both of which will change four times a year. Five appetizers will be new every week.

    The Essex’s new 1,500-square-foot space boasts seating for about 40 people. (There is also room for 20 more outside during good weather.) There are bar seats, which are first-come, first-served; a Chef’s Tasting Counter, with reservations required; and tables where patrons can make reservations for one of two seatings: 4-6:15 p.m. or 7:30-9 p.m.

    It isn’t that far from Centerbrook to Old Saybrook, so why the decision to move The Essex? It’s about location, location, location. It’s also about the type of restaurant that works best in different spots.

    How it all started

    Taylor, 38, knows the area well. His family moved from Berlin, Conn., to Essex when he was 12. As a teen, his early jobs were at the Saybrook Fish House and Dock & Dine in Old Saybrook. For more than a decade after graduating from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, Taylor worked in renowned restaurants in New York, Miami and Los Angeles, with his first executive chef position being at One if By Land Two if By Sea in New York City.

    When he eventually moved back to Essex in 2017, he and his father, Michael Hannifan, looked for a building where Colt could establish his own restaurant. They fell in love with the structure in Centerbrook, which is massive — 12,000 square feet, with 7,000 square feet on the first floor for restaurant space.

    “When I built it out, I kept saying, ‘There’s more square feet than people in the town. This is not going to work.’ So I had to design it to be two restaurants in one,” Taylor says.

    “The initial Essex was more of a data collection restaurant to try to figure out (what people in the area enjoy). So we did, like, a burger night on Tuesdays, we did a taco night on Thursdays. We ran data for our first year of being open. It wasn’t really The Essex; it was more figuring what to open as a casual restaurant to take up all the space.”

    Based on that information, they opened the casual Los Charros Cantina in 2018, and then Taylor made The Essex specifically a fine dining restaurant in the front part of the building.

    “That was amazing, incredible. But one thing I regretted from the initial build out once I really got acclimated in the area was the small bar (at Los Charros). In that 140-seat restaurant, the initial bar was the same size as this (small one in the Old Saybrook version of The Essex). So that was a struggle.

    “The second minor struggle was location. It’s a great location next to the (Essex) Steam Train, which is one of our big draws, (and) on the way to the Ivoryton Playhouse, but the actual physical location didn’t have ‘destination location’ written on it. It’s the perfect location for casual dining — for Los Charros. It’s convenient, it’s accessible,” he says.

    It bothered Taylor that this site wasn’t ideal for a fine dining venue like The Essex.

    “The reality was we were spinning our wheels so hard to make a dent. Sixty-five percent of our regular clientele (for The Essex) was from New York, Boston, West Hartford or Mystic. Of the local clientele, 20 percent are from Madison and Guilford. So we were drawing from all over, but we weren’t necessarily drawing locally. Part of that was we were doing a concept, a really deep, introspective study of food; every month, we studied a different region around the world, from Brazil to Japan to Peru … We were doing menus fresh every month,” Taylor says, adding that he thinks they have found the best of all worlds with the mix of staples and changing items at the new Essex.

    Landing in Old Saybrook

    So, for the past 2-1/2 years, Taylor has been scouting for a new spot for The Essex. Finding the perfect location was, in a roundabout way, a result of buying a new home and working on a new restaurant project.

    Taylor has been collaborating for almost a year with restauranteur Jon Komada on another proposal: Smoke on the Water at the location where Dock & Dine used to be at Saybrook Point. (Kodama owns that property.)

    They had proposed a seasonal outdoor eatery using high-end trailers for food preparation, bar service and so on. Some neighbors objected during zoning hearings about potential noise and other issues. This spring, the Zoning Commission denied Kodama and Taylor’s application, saying it was incomplete and allowing them to reapply.

    In October 2020, Taylor and wife Katey were about to have their twin boys, and they found what they felt was a perfect house. It was in Old Saybrook, not far off Main Street.

    “We moved here, and we fell in love with (the town). Just driving by Main Street every day has been enticing,” he says.

    Then, 2-1/2 months ago, Taylor was in Old Saybrook Town Hall with his structural engineer for Smoke on the Water, Joe Wren. Wren told Taylor he had just bought the building across the street where a bakery used to be. He asked Taylor if he knew anyone who might want to open a new bakery or, say, a little takeout place there.

    Taylor looked at the site and decided it would be ideal for The Essex — not only the space itself but the fact that it was on Main Street, where there’s foot traffic, and is across from the town green and the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center.

    “When all that happened, I think it was just kismet. Everything came together, everything worked out perfectly,” he says.

    Having a presence in Old Saybrook also allows town residents to get to know Taylor and his business better.

    “Smoke on the Water is so near and dear to us, and we are fighting to make that happen. I heard so many different things when I was going through the zoning process — oh, Long Wharf, New Haven, food trucks, hot dogs and burgers, all of this stuff that couldn’t be further from the type of chef I am and the type of the food we’re trying to make,” Taylor says.

    “I thought, if I open my flagship (restaurant The Essex) right here and we give the other building to our concept of Los Charrros, with a vibrant bar scene, it’s like a win-win because we’re giving that location what it needs and what it deserves and something we care a lot about. And we’re also giving this location something that speaks to the town and says, ‘This is who I am, this is what we’re trying to do, this is the person behind Smoke on the Water.’”

    Cooking up something

    Taylor was cooking even as a kid and says he loves the creative aspect of it. He grew up with a mother, Melissa Barbieri, who is an artist (the mural behind The Essex’s bar is hers). While Colt didn’t follow in her footsteps as a painter, he appreciated the creative aspect of that art.

    “It’s like with cooking. It’s a challenge, but you look at artwork — artwork is subjective, everybody has their opinions. But cooking is tenfold subjectivity because everybody has their own palate, their own taste buds, and they’re constantly changing. Every dish is its own separate thing. Even if you’re creating the same dish over and over, every single one has miniscule little differences that go out to different customers, and it’s a challenge to go for consistency but also embrace and embody creativity — it’s all very important,” he says.

    Taylor wasn’t the only one in his family with a knack for food preparation. He says his mother is a great cook, his aunt is an incredible baker, and he learned later in his life that his great-great-great grandmother was the private chef for famous etiquette columnist Amy Vanderbilt.

    Taylor loved cooking enough to consider it as a career, but in high school, he was encouraged to attend a “real college,” as he recalls, and not a culinary institute.

    At the University of Vermont, he earned a bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurial business and pre-med molecular genetics. He was serious enough about going into medicine that he took his MCATS (The Medical College Admission Tests) but ultimately decided he didn’t want to commit to more school.

    He spent three years cooking professionally before attending The Culinary Institute of America. After graduating, he taught there for a year. He said he developed mentorships with chefs there, and he continues to be close with them today.

    Then he spent years between New York City, Miami and Los Angeles, working at a variety of venues, from the Fontainebleau in Miami to Le Bernardin in New York.

    “All of them had their place in teaching me,” he says.

    Chef Colt Taylor, right, tops Tuna Toast with egg yolk as Sous Chef Bryan Etterman looks on at The Essex in Old Saybrook. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    The Essex´s signature Clam Chowder is made with koji, kombu and dulce seaweed and covered in a puff pastry. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Executive Sous Chef Charles Brosseau works on plating toffee braised short ribs at The Essex. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    If you go

    What: The Essex

    Where: 247 Main St., Old Saybrook

    Hours: 4-9 p.m. Tues., Wed. and Thurs.; 4-10 p.m. Fri. and Sat.

    Contact: theessex.com, (860) 237-4189

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