It's rainy and you're meeting a local impresario pal for lunch. Her artistic flair is abundant, and she loves real food, locally grown, served in charming surroundings. So, your decision is not much of one....
You learn you are not unique. Several other tables are full of midweek diners catching up with friends, and you even bump into a member from the same arts commission, dining with her sister visiting from Australia. It's not surprising. All roads lead to Zest.
Zest, formerly Monet's Table, has been under the rich guidance of Carrie Landry Cowles for the last 2½ years. The restaurant relies on locally grown foods, almost exclusively, and nurtures its own produce on site.
The restaurant is an enjoyably eclectic and experimental place, with a cheddar cheese ice cream now on the menu to go along with its apple tart, but it's got to rate to stay alive. “I'll make it,” Cowles told her staff when the idea came up, “but, if anyone says it's gross, we'll trash it.” Made with a vanilla base, extra sharp Cabot Cheddar and light sugar, the dish has survived.
Zest resides in a lovely farmhouse, surrounded by gardens and with original moldings, wood floors and colorfully painted walls that display work by local artists. A collection of teacups lines the mantel in the main dining room.
We order two types of quesadillas – she the squash, me the duck – and I get the potato turnip soup. Zest offers an array of teas, hot and cold, wine and other beverages. We linger and have our fill of fresh foods and meaty conversation, as do those around us. And one of us, let's not say who, orders the pear crème brulée to finish. We are sated.
But this is a place that appeals to men as well as to Ladies Who Lunch. Men are, after all, pretty much all about the food. And Zest has menu items that include steak filets, pulled pork and hearty soups. And the décor is minus the laciness of its previous incarnation.
“Now we're going for more of a bistro style,” Cowles says. “It doesn't have to be a special occasion.”
But Zest does have its special occasions, holding six-course wine dinners in the garden during the summer and creating Valentine's weekend and Mardi Gras specialty dishes, for instance. The restaurant is a frequent vendor at the popular Coventry Farmers Market, where it sells, for $13 to $15, two-serving prepared entrées, such as butternut squash and mushroom enchiladas with pumpkin enchilada sauce.
The garden is a perpetual draw for customers. Tables are scattered under the shade trees and all about, with one ensconced in the little gazebo and now, as the air turns chill in the evening, there is an encased, wood-burning fire in the center. Guests often stay for a night cap and more conversation outside after dinner. Zest offers wine, beer and signature cocktails.
Cowles is chef, but now 5 months' pregnant, she says, “I'm getting more and more out of the kitchen because I can't fit.” So, she's turned much of the cooking over to her staff for this phase in her life. “I don't know if you'd call us chefs. We are people who taught themselves how to cook,” she says.
Zest is located at 167 Tolland Stage Road, or Route 74. Its fall hours are lunch, Wed-Fri 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner Wed-Sat, starting at 5 p.m., and Saturday brunch, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. For information, visit Zest's website, its Facebook page or call 860-875-7244