Chef Brian Lewis Rocks the Cottage in Westport
A Top Connecticut Chef & James Beard House Regular Serves Up His “Acoustic Unplugged Version”
Pronouncements about what it means to cook at the James Beard House in Greenwich Village are easy to find. The New York Times has said, an invitation to “perform” at the gastronome’s former brownstone means a chef has arrived.
Chef Brian Lewis, who launched The Cottage restaurant in Westport as chef/owner (with a silent partner) in December 2015, has performed at the Beard House three times, most recently in January. His menu included, among passed appetizers, a version of what’s called “pizza muffins” in middle-class American households.
That’s right. At the Beard House, where the best chefs in the world bring their A-game and serve rarefied cuisine, Chef Lewis made pizza muffins as an homage to childhood memories with his brother, who attended the dinner. His homemade English muffin pizza with local burrata and bianco tomato conserva was nothing like the crispy (or soggy) homespun staple with jar sauce and deli mozzarella. It was such a hit that Chef Lewis offered it as an appetizer at The Cottage a few days later on a busy Saturday night.
The anecdote offers a lens into the rock-n-roll culinary soul of a chef who describes his seasonally inspired creative American cuisine as casual, edgy, and well thought out.
There’s a logical symbiosis for Chef Lewis in owning a welcoming bijou where he’s comfortable enough to serve pizza muffins alongside dishes with more pyrotechnics, like this recent appetizer: Brussels Sprout Tempura with pancetta, togarashi (a Japanese style chili pepper condiment), smoked shoyu (soy), and nori.
“It’s just stupid delicious and makes no sense,” Chef Lewis says of that dish, which “just evolved.” “Stupid delicious” is as good a description as any superlative for a style of cooking that the chef is often asked to define. “It’s just American,” he says. “It’s my expression. It’s my cooking, an expression of my life experience.”
His trajectory has led to Chef Lewis being happier than ever as the culinary monarch of a very small, cozy universe – just 50 seats and 12 more at the bar in a stylish but also tiny new addition – rather than conquering kitchens at loftier places in major metropolitan areas. “This restaurant would be no different if it was in New York City,” says the chef, whose wife, Dana, calls him the most insecure cocky guy she knows, which may explain his commitment to constantly accelerating the creative push – yielding dishes like Spicy Squid & Broccoli, with black garlic, chorizo, and red chili. A symphony of spice and satisfaction in perfect equilibrium, it’s also a dish in which every element manages to shine through individually.
Earlier in his career, Chef Lewis’ drive centered on striving to work for the best in the industry. That included early experience with chefs like Jean Louis Palladin and Marco Pierre White, and Lewis won national recognition as the opening executive chef for the two restaurants at actor Richard Gere’s The Bedford Post Inn: The Barn and The Farmhouse. They made Esquire’s “Best New Restaurants” list in 2009 and earned an “Excellent” review in The New York Times.
His first solo effort (with co-owners) came in March, 2012, in the form of the acclaimed Elm Restaurant in New Canaan. Then, in the fall of 2015, Bill Taibe – the perennial semi-finalist for a James Beard Foundation “Best Chefs in America” award – invited Chef Lewis to buy his beloved and successful Westport destination restaurant, Le Farm.
The rest for Chef Lewis, who has built upon a foundation of degrees from the Culinary Institute of America and Johnson and Wales University, is history in the making. “I think this is a very special place,” he says.
It’s all based on the food and Chef Lewis’ devotion to small farms (he’d like to have his own growing plot in the near future) and seasonally- inspired, constantly changing menus. A mid-winter dinner menu featured comforts like Kabocha Squash Agnolotti with date brown butter and sage crumbs, along with an entrée that perfectly embodied the chef’s mastery of a comfort/frisson duality: Duck Fried Rice with maitake mushrooms, bok choy, and sunny quail eggs.
While Chef Lewis and his kitchen team will serve 140 guests on a Saturday night in a main dining room and bar that feel like breezy seaside cottages, the very high level of the performance makes the intimacy of the confines feel like an enhancement to the dining experience. In fact, the best seat in the house may be one of the four stools at the snug Chef’s Counter, where guests get to watch Chef Lewis call the plays while they hunger after every plate coming out of the kitchen. But wherever you sit, Chef Lewis’ innovative cuisine will put on a show you won’t forget.
The Cottage serves dinner Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., and until 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Brunch is served on Sunday.
256 Post Rd. East, Westport
Chef Brian Lewis' Local Food Sources, In His Words
Lori Cochran-Dougall, the market director, does a remarkable job of connecting chefs and farmers and makes the process of ‘farm to table’ an effortless everyday option.
We are so fortunate to have this amazing farm right next door to my home in Wilton. I continue to learn and grow as a chef through working with Annie Farrell, the master farmer at Millstone Farm. I especially look forward to planning the plantings for the restaurants for the upcoming season. We love their “twisted sister” carrots, incredible mâche lettuce, farm eggs, Chioggia beets, junior leeks, and herbs of all kinds.
Jessica Wong does a wonderful job with her farm and market and always provides a great outing for my family – even better that the restaurant gets to enjoy their amazing eggs, spinach, greens, beets, radishes, spinach, and strawberries!
Located right here in Westport, we love their local duck eggs and delicious greens!