It is almost June! Which means graduation season has recently passed. Seeing photos of friends graduating with their Masters or Bachelors makes me think of my own graduation. I can’t believe it has already been 3 years… And one entire year since my little sister graduated as well. Her and I both studied at the University of Connecticut. It feels like time has just stopped since my graduation back in 2016, and suddenly even my little sister has been in the real world for a while. Her graduation day was beautiful. She looked beautiful and the weather was perfect. It was definitely a day to celebrate both her and my parents accomplishments in raising such successful ladies (lol).
After the ceremony last year, we had reservations for a dope local spot in Willimantic, the town next door. We had also gone there to celebrate my graduation in 2016, I have always been shocked to find this place in such an odd small town, and since it is a hole in the wall restaurant that has become merited in the upcoming years, after my second time there, I thought I'd write my own review of the place.
In 2009, Cafemantic was first opened as a coffee shop, only a few streets away from Eastern CT State University campus. Andrew Gutt, one of the university's graduate felt there was a lack of “comfortable and hip” spots in the area that welcomed college students to study and hangout, and naturally thought to do something about it. Quickly admired, Cafemantic started attracting people from all over the state. Andrew Gutt had something greater than a coffee shop in his books, however. He brought in his friend and former co-worker Jon Hudak, as Executive Chef, whom Gutt promised he would make rich if his new restaurant idea worked, and they set out to create one of the best restaurants in the area.
Cafemantic is located in an old concrete factory building, where the industrial-looking architecture adds the perfect balance of rustic and modern to the atmosphere. As you walk in, you get sense of what they were trying to create, with a darker lighting, which some may call "mood lighting." There are only a few small tables, and the kitchen is easily seen from the dining area. This proximity easily translates when the server brings out tapas-like dishes to the guests. You can see the chef meticulously planned each and every dish with intention, as if you were welcomed into the chef's own home. Both Gutt and Hudak's talents are perceived in each and every way throughout the restaurant. From the excellent service and management, decoration, and flavor combinations. The menu is "driven by seasonal produce and local ingredients" according to their website, which means their menu isn't static; they are constantly changing the dishes depending on produce and ingredients they have on hand and around them. The Coventry Regional Farmer's Market plays a big part in the Chef's inspirations, providing fresh, local ingredients that they can work with, which is a really cool and a sustainable way to collaborate. The one thing I will say that aggravated me and disappointed me a little was the fact that because their menu changes so much, I wasn’t able to get a bite of the incredible lobster mac and cheese I had last time. I didn’t worry, however, I knew they would not disappoint me with any of their other dishes.
I wasn't sure how my family would enjoy a place like this, since we hadn't eaten a meal in very long because of our long trip to the university, plus having to sit through a very long graduation ceremony and then photos... I know how picky my dad can get with eating out, and having my grandma and aunt visiting from Brazil added to the pressure. I did not know if they were expecting the big "American-like" portions normally offered at chain restaurants, so I made sure to tell them exactly what to expect and the story behind Cafemantic. They seemed to understand, and were enthusiastic as soon as we walked in. We sat down, and quickly warmed up to the atmosphere.
We started with drinks. I tried a glass of the chardonnay, which is my all-time favorite white wine.
Then, of course we had to try their warm homemade sweet sage table loaf baked with olive chunks and served with roasted garlic, unfiltered Sicilian olive oil, and Vermont Creamery butter- AMAZING- last time I tried this it was just as good.
When we ordered, each person asked for one of the dishes they wanted and because these are small plates, served like tapas, we decided to share each others dishes so that everyone could have a taste of everything.
My father asked for the Crudo Japanese Hamachi- a cold plate. pea and avocado puree served as the bed for the white soy ponzu, serrano peppers, and mint; I am not a big fan of cold tartares, but this one was very unique, definitely worth the try.
My grandma went with the classic: their amazing 5 cheese baked mac and cheese. Look at that crisp top…
My mom chose the Faroe Island salmon, cooked to perfection, served over a bed of local seasonal veggies. Yum!
I asked for the Thai Curry Chicken, which was perfectly spicy and served with pickled onions and carrots - I love pickled anything, and this really added the freshness the dish needed.
My sister picked their perfect penne carbonara- with the pasta being made by the chefs, in-house. That egg yolk and pancetta combination never disappoints.
My aunt also chose the penne carbonara. Can't blame an Italian family for wanting pasta all the same time! I obviously also tried that pasta. It really was sort of perfect.
Finally, my favorite time of any meal: dessert. Their desserts had authentic and unique flavors. I am pretty sure we almost picked one of each of the desserts available on the menu!
The fallen chocolate souffle cake was a brownie- like cake served with their home made banana ice cream, topped with salted hot fudge, and wait for it... hazelnut-bacon brittle- WHAT?! I am drooling just thinking about that flavor combo again.
We also asked for their almond citrus sponge cake served with coconut sorbet, yuzu curd, and Meyer lemon merengue, but to be honest I don't quite remember what this one tasted like in comparison to the chocolate souffle.
Finally, we finished things off with some espresso and a scoop of brown butter ice cream, which was the cherry on top!
Going to Cafemantic is definitely a hike, depending on where you are from. But, it brings a little bit of a city flavor to such a rural city; I am pretty sure Willimantic has never seen a more diverse quantity of people. Although the menu can sometimes become a little simple and bland, because of its dependance with what is locally offered, Chef Hudak's flavor combinations and ideas never disappoint. If you are looking for some good farm to table food, I highly recommend a trip to Cafemantic.