Le Mazet is now open at 975 Farmington Avenue, featuring scratch-made French country fare, a carefully-curated wine list, and the return of the Arethusa ice cream counter and dairy shop.
By Ronni Newton
The friendship between an accomplished restaurateur and a West Hartford wine shop owner, and the opportunity to collaborate with an existing ice cream and dairy shop already in the space, are just part of the backstory that led to the opening of Le Mazet, a French country style restaurant that also features creative cocktails and forms a perfect marriage with Arethusa’s farm-fresh approach.
In less than three months, owner Jared Cohen has overseen the transformation of what was originally Arethusa’s full service cafe and dairy – but more recently just an ice cream and dairy market – into Le Mazet, a name that means a rustic cottage dwelling that’s “a place of respite and food and drink.”
The Farmington Avenue patio has blossomed into a Provencal garden, and the interior has retained Arethusa’s black and white tile and exposed brick, but the new chestnut brown leather banquettes add warmth and the brushed gold seats at the white granite bar add subdued sophistication.
Jacob Studenroth, known to many locals as the owner of The Wise Old Dog (and known for his skill at recommending the perfect wine to complement anything from the most expensive cut of beef to scrambled eggs) is not an owner or formally affiliated with Le Mazet, but he has offered not only his wine expertise but also inspired the restaurant’s concept.
Studenroth and Cohen have been friends for more than a decade and have helped promote each other’s businesses. Cohen recently sold his ownership stake in Republic, and was considering his next project, still developing the concept, when he reached out to Studenroth.
“I had an idea for a restaurant that I couldn’t open” because of his other business, said Studenroth. He said he and Cohen had a phone conversation, and then Studenroth texted him the name of the restaurant, and an outline of the menu.
“Jared and I tease each other … but he knows I love ‘restaurant,'” Studenroth said, and they had so much fun putting it all together. “I have no ownership interest,” he added. “It’s really just fueled by friendship and the love of guests.”
Of course an excellent chef is a critical component, and Joe Cusano has taken over the domain of the kitchen, bringing more than 10 years of experience in the industry, most recently as chef de cuisine with Max Restaurant Group.
“I’ve never met a chef with the ability he has, and the temperament he has,” Cohen said of Cusano. Working with him on the menu, and the opening, was a “joyful experience.”
Cusano grew up in an Italian household with a mother who loved to cook. “I listened to my mom, watched her,” and he went on to attend Johnson & Wales where he was was classically trained in French cuisine.
Cusano is bubbling with excitement about the opportunity at Le Mazet, and the chance to focus on his French training.
“I wanted to control my own kitchen, control my own environment,” he said. And that control starts with the very basics, he said, with roughly 95% of the menu completely scratch-made, including the stocks and sauces.
“Our top dishes are our stews, and those take three to four days to make,” Cusano said. “They are really, really in-depth tastes,” he said, noting that not just the chicken but also the rosemary and other ingredients shine in the Coq Au Vin.
Le Mazet served a family-style dinner for about a week during a soft-opening phase, allowing them to test out dishes before finalizing the menu.
On the second day of the official opening, Cusano said already popular items include the Coq Au Vin, Bourguignon (beef stew), as well as the bone marrow (it’s a seven-inch cut) and steak tartare on the “Sur la Table” section of the menu.
The croques – French-style grilled cheese, served on brioche with greens – are already favorites as well, with the Croque Poulette featuring rotisserie chicken roasted in-house on Le Mazet’s specially-imported Rotisol Rotisserie.
Rotisserie chicken, as a half or whole, is also on the menu, served with potatoes and mirepoix.
The duck in the Canard sandwich is cured in orange, thyme, and rosemary, then cooked in duck fat and shredded before being topped with Arethusa’s Mt. Tom cheese and the jam of the week. The jams, Cusano said, are made from the leftover fresh fruits and might be grape, blackberry, or strawberry depending on what’s available.
While the stews are hearty, the Poisson en Papillotte is a “more light affair” that makes for an entertaining presentation as the parchment paper is surgically sliced open at the table revealing the perfectly-steamed fish and its accompaniments, such as bacon lentils and asparagus with the salmon.
Flavors are complex, but the food – while beautifully plated – is not at all fussy.
The fig tart, which includes brie, charred onion, prosciutto, and fig jam, is meant to be shared as a starter or small plate, but is hearty and savory enough to be a full meal.
The seared tuna comes in individual or sharing size (the individual could be shared by two, but the sharing size is enough for four to five people), with the crusted ahi tuna sharing the bowl with eggs, potatoes, cherry tomatoes, and delicately-crisped tempura green beans. The dressing includes capers, shallots, and lemon, Cusano said.
Any dish can be augmented by “The Bump” – a gram of caviar.
Cohen said Le Mazet is committed to small business partnerships, not just with Arethusa but with New Canaan-based Ilse Coffee, Kent Falls Brewing Company, Hugo Tea, Hartford Baking Company, and Island Creek Oyster Company for the tinned fish that is the cornerstone of their “La Conserve” menu.
Conserva – a French country style version of charcuterie – looks almost too pretty to eat, but is meant to be shared and enjoyed family style. It features a choice of tinned fish (razor clams, mussels, scallops, sardines, or anchovies) Cohen said, long a shelf-stable staple of European countryside fare. Le Mazet’s conserva also includes crispy rounds of sliced baguette, country mustard, pickles, and uniquely pickled vegetables like carrots marinated in Harissa. The fava beans, prepared in house with olive oil, garlic, and banyuls vinegar, are even tastier than they look.
Cusano also crafted the seasonally-inspired dessert menu. The rotisserie is used to char the apples for the Charred Apple Crisp, which is then topped with Arethusa’s vanilla ice cream, house-made granola, and a flaky creme de caramel sauce.
“Do You Have S’More Room” is the name of another dessert, which should at least be sampled even if you don’t have room. Cocoa-infused buttermilk adds a rich depth to the combination of flourless chocolate torte, house-made graham cracker granola, and marshmallow.
Aly Leone created all of the cocktails as well as the coffee menu, and also is dedicated to scratch preparation. Some cocktails take days to batch.
Wine and French food are a time-honored combination, and Studenroth has applied his vast experience from his travels to France and longstanding relationships with growers and farms into the wine list of “his wildest dreams” that is unique yet not pricey. “It’s basically half-price bottle night every night,” Cohen said.
Studenroth, with the help of Cohen, Leone, and management, tasted about 300 wines before also curating the list of wines by the glass which pair well with the menu and are served in jam jars.
The soft opening, Cohen said, “went better than I could have possibly imagined. Joe [Cusano] and Dean [Brower, the sous chef] killed it.” The format helped them dial into what was ultimately chosen for the menu.
Cusano was also pleased with the reception to the soft opening, and said they “pushed out some really great dishes.”
In true Le Mazet fashion, the restaurant service is continuous from opening to close. Food is served Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. A late night menu (conserva, cheese plates, French fries with lemon aioli, and more) is available for an extra hour after the regular service ends. Sunday hours are 11 a.m. until 8:30 p.m., and Cohen said a weekend brunch is in the works.
Reservations are not being accepted at this time, but Cohen said they have an “active wait list” and if there is a wait they will text the customer to let them know when a table is ready.
There are 47 seats inside – including at the bar – and seating for 26 on the patio.
Of course you can also wander in whenever Le Mazet is open to grab an ice cream cone or coffee, or a half-gallon of milk or container of Arethusa’s famed butter from the dairy refrigerator. The counter adds to the casual and comfortable atmosphere.
Arethusa opened the farm dairy cafe in June 2020 – in the early days of the pandemic – but had scaled back to offer just the ice cream and dairy items. “They did a great job with their build-out, and we just built around it,” Cohen said. Arethusa founder Tony Yurgaitis (his life partner and Arethusa co-f0under George Malkemus died in September 2021) attended the soft opening, Cohen said, and was pleased with the results.
Many of the items on the menu are gluten free, or can be prepared gluten free, and there are also numerous vegetarian options. The ratatouille is vegan, and accommodations can made for other dishes as well. “Whatever the customer wants,” Cusano said.
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