Surveying the ambiance of his newly opened Estia's American, chef/owner Colin Ambrose believes his grandmother, a Daughter of the American Revolution, would find comfort in his home-style restaurant.
The successful restaurateur, in the business for more than 20 years, brings his expertise of farm-to-table dining to his old stomping grounds of Darien. The owner of Estia's Little Kitchen in Sag Harbor, N.Y., in the Hamptons, Ambrose, whose father was a Darien commuter, is no stranger to Fairfield County, where he earned his chops in a number of restaurants gleaning the dos and don'ts to running a successful eatery.
Ambrose, who opened his first store -- a small coffee shop -- with an $8,000 investment -- has worked in or owned six restaurants. The first Estia's was in Amagansett, between the Hamptons and Montauk, but he sold it after two years. In 1998, he opened Estia's Little Kitchen. "I didn't sleep for four months," he said. One of the hallmarks of Estia's Little Kitchen is the restaurant's garden, where Ambrose grows and harvests fruits and vegetables for the menu selections. He boasts that he was one of the first in the sustainable food movement, which now, he said, is the trend in restaurants.
"I was ahead of the trend. My grandfather taught me how to do it. He always had a big garden," he said. At Estia's Little Kitchen, Ambrose developed the Two-Hour Salad, the fixings for which are harvested from his garden and well received by customers.
The father of three girls decided it was time to bring the success of Estia's Little Kitchen to Fairfield County, renovating a former restaurant space at 1020 Post Road, Brick Walkway, in the heart of downtown into a general store-themed place. Housed in a brick building, Estia's American is decorated in soothing colors, with original artwork on the walls, many of them by his good friend Jim Gingerich. Craftsman Evan Thomas was integral in developing the design of the restaurant, which is filled with books on shelves. "Books to me add color and dimension to a room. They add the opportunity to grab sound, which to me was a big goal. I knew that this room required some sensitivity to sound," Ambrose said.
Fourteen employees work in the front and back of the house, including chef Carissa Waechter, a graduate of the Art Institute of New York City's culinary arts program. She began her career under Michel Willaume at Mondrian Pastry in New York. She worked as head pastry chef at both David Burke and Donatella Restaurant, as well as Beacon NYC, before joining the pastry team at the Dinex Group under chef Daniel Boulud for several years. She then went to Amagansett and developed close relationships with local farmers while operating the Amagansett Farmers Market. Waechter is co-founder of the Amagansett Food Institute and responsible for launching food programs with the East Hampton School District. Carissa's Breads, her line of baked goods, is produced with locally grown and harvested ingredients, including wheat she mills herself.
Estia's American, which opened in early April for breakfast and lunch, will launch a dinner service once it is fully staffed with about 25, Ambrose said. The restaurant can seat up to 38 people, and another 16 when the patio opens. "People like small spaces," he said.
The menu mirrors that of Estia's Little Kitchen, except for the names of a few items, which honor notable people and locals. The made-from-scratch menu items feature fresh ingredients that Ambrose said he is proud to say he can source their origins. He regularly buys hormone-free beef from a farm in Pennsylvania, which has Darien connections, for his grass-fed burger offerings, as well as pork and lamb from Pine Plains, N.Y. While he has yet to work out arrangements with local growers for Estia's American, Ambrose is providing much of his stock from farmers with whom he deals for Estia's Little Kitchen.
"I feel a commitment to the people who come to me to provide them with the best-quality food that I can," he said, adding that the full bar in Darien includes beer from two local breweries and wine from Long Island. All of Estia's American's hot sauces are made on the premises.
Ambrose has crafted the down-home comfort-food menu with his own twist. Many of the items have a Mexican flair, including Happy Harold's Breakfast Burrito -- which is made with andouille sausage, eggs, onions, pepper and jack cheese -- or grilled fish tacos with tequila sunrise salsa. The menu also includes a juice bar, featuring the blend of the day.
While Ambrose admits that his menu may not be entirely different from that of other restaurants, he said, "I do hear from time to time that there are flavors here that people don't find elsewhere. That's the goal. We want to be that variety and we want to have a menu that's big enough so that someone who chooses to come here three times a week doesn't have the same kind of thing every time they come."
Contemplating the good reception Estia's American has received thus far and looking toward expanding into a dinner service, Ambrose thinks back to a philosophy he learned from Michel Roux, a French-born chef and restaurateur.
"The restaurant business has a lot less to do with food than most people think. The restaurant business is really theater. What happens is the kitchen is essentially the stage crew. The bartender and the waiters are the stars of the show. The owner is the producer. The manager is the director. We are in dress rehearsal right now and we are choreographing this room and we are establishing a dance and we are working on our lines and trying to prepare for the main event," he said.
Estia's American is open for breakfast and lunch and will start dinner service this month. Call 203-202-7051 or visit www.estiasamerican.com.