The name is Chao Chi, the food is American and the new chef owner is Indian. It admittedly may be a little confusing, said Prasad Chirnomula, who recently took over the Sandy Hook establishment, but in other ways it makes perfect sense.
Formerly known as Chao Chao, the restaurant at 1 Glen Road has retained the name of prior owner, Elaine Chao, whose decorating touches can still be seen in parts of the dining area, while adding part of Chirnomula's last name.
The subtle change in ownership, name and menu focus was made with the hope that with his experience, the eatery can not only survive but thrive.
"This is a destination spot," Chirnomula said recently as he sat on the restaurant's outdoor deck overlooking the Pootatuck River. "I want to make this the top 10 destination in Connecticut."
With Asian restaurants abundantly represented in Newtown, including an Indian eatery in Botsford, Chirnomula said he believed the town was lacking new American cuisine offerings.
"I really didn't see a good modern American food around here," he said. "My business sense called for American."
So Chirnomula removed the former restaurant's sushi bar and immense pan-Asian offerings in favor of a raw bar and focused menu of small plates and entrees featuring modern American fare, such as heirloom tomato salad, duck breast and polenta and carmelized sea scallop with corn.
Chirnomula reasoned that good food, attentive wait service and beautiful setting will equal success.
"I don't see why this shouldn't be a success," he said.
The venue is a new one for Chirnomula, who is best known for his chain of Indian fusion restaurants named Thali, with locations in New Canaan, Ridgefield, New Haven and Westport. In addition to Chao Chi, he is in the midst of starting Oaxaca Kitchen in New Haven, his first foray into Mexican cuisine.
According to Chirnomula, Mexican cooking shares many similarities to Indian techniques.
"You take away ginger and some other spices and Indian food is Mexican food," he said, adding that he traveled to the Oaxaca region of Mexico to study cooking techniques.
Chirnomula is no stranger to new adventure and experiences, having left India where his father and most of his family worked as doctors to strike out on his own in the United States in 1985, intent on making a name for himself in the U.S. hospitality industry. Arriving in the New York area, Chirnomula called his cousin, a doctor who lives in Wilton, to ask for a place to stay.
With a background in hotel administration in India, Chirnomula initially had problems finding work, particularly because he needed to find an employer willing to sponsor a work visa in the United States. He finally found a job at an Indian restaurant in Long Island, only to find out when he arrived that the position was for a busboy.
"At that time it may have felt like it was an insult, but now I'm so happy (that I took it)," Chirnomula said.
While living at a Long Island boarding house, he spent six months working as a busboy and later in the front of the house before moving to the kitchen. Later, Chirnomula worked as a cook at an Indian restaurant in Manhattan, and by 1988 was offered the opportunity to help open an Indian restaurant in Stamford.
That was the start of many partnerships for Chirnomula before he opened his first Thali in New Canaan to rave reviews. Since then, he's never looked back.
"Once your work is recognized, your confidence only gets better," he said.
Chirnomula said with Chao Chao, he took over a restaurant in desperate need of changes. He started in the kitichen, bringing in executive chef Adam Roytman, who has cooked at popular new American eateries such as Napa & Co. in Stamford and Match in Norwalk.
Chirnomula's vision is to provide sophisticated and fresh fare to accompany the river setting.
"I have a perfect location," he said. "People are hungry for this."
The menu offers hearty items typically found at American eateries, including wild striped bass and a burger topped with béarnaise sauce, as well as small plate offerings of grilled quail, Hudson Valley foie gras and other dishes, which allow diners to have slightly more sophisticated food but in affordable portions.
Among the restaurant's speciality is a caramelized sea scallop entrée that features the seared shellfish accompanied by a sashimi cut of salmon atop a bed of roasted fresh corn and finished with a creamy sauce to tie the sweet and savory flavors. The food is meticulously arranged on white dinnerware designed to make the colors pop and the dish appealing.
The menu also wouldn't be complete without Chirnomula's signature blue crab, which with the generous portions of crab and coconut cream brings diners a taste of what brought him success with Thali.
In addition to the food, Chirnomula said he places an emphasis on service. The wait staff are not only friendly and attentive but knowledgeable of the dishes and ingredients.
To round out the dining experience is manager and sommelier Steve Garrett who is in charge of the restaurant's global wine list.
Diners looking solely for good food stay home, those looking to be pampered dine out, Chirnomula said.
"I tell my staff we're in the service area," he said. "Service takes over everything."