Inventiveness with a Hot Plate

A Review of August: Upscale Bar and Eatery, in New Haven

By Sarah Gold

Even for veteran chefs working in state-of-the-art kitchens, it can be taxing to consistently whip up sophisticated, satisfying meals for a parade of discriminating patrons. So when a self-taught cook manages to pull it off using only a hot plate, a plug-in stew pot and a panini press, the results can seem like feats of culinary magic.

Such are the enchantments to be found at August: Upscale Bar and Eatery, a tiny wine bar that opened in the East Rock neighborhood of New Haven in May. Though just 16 stools line its cozy space — and everything on its one-page menu is prepped and cooked in a corner behind the mahogany bar — the boîte serves up rustic yet elegant fare that would be notable in a venue 10 times its size.

Part of the wizardry here has to do with ambience. Wine bars can be intimidating, especially for novices. But the married co-owners, Andrew Hotis and Michelle Chadwick-Hotis, who work the space together every evening, have an easy warmth and an appealing, plain-spoken way of discussing terroir and varietals that immediately dispel any shyness. (Ms. Chadwick-Hotis described a Spanish red to me as “gravelly, you know? It has a little bite to it.”) Though each spent years working in upscale bars and eateries around the country — most recently in Manhattan — they comport themselves here, in their first shared venture, as if entertaining friends in their own living room.

The space itself is inviting in a deeply personal way. Before opening the restaurant, the couple spent 10 months refurbishing the 1920s-era, 350-square-foot room (once a goldsmith shop, and before that a headquarters for a local election campaign), painstakingly restoring the pressed-tin ceilings and wide-plank floors themselves. Their labors somehow imbue the place with a cherished, intimate feel; so do the quirky personal items they have used to decorate.

A photo of Mr. Hotis’s young son, August, for whom the bar is named, looks down from a high shelf; taxidermy mounts of two chickens and a pheasant, a nod to Mr. Hotis’s father, a taxidermist, adorn the exposed-brick wall, and Mason jars of fresh-cut roses are spaced along the bar — a favorite of Ms. Chadwick-Hotis’s mother. Old clothbound copies of Shakespeare plays are piled here and there, too — and are used to tuck bar bills into.

The most startling sorcery at August, however, happens in the tight alcove — right next to the wine rack and shelves of Reidel goblets — where Mr. Hotis cooks. Building on what he learned working in esteemed spots like Lelabar in the West Village, he has crafted a small, seasonally changing menu based not just on high-quality ingredients, but on what he can prepare at a station roughly the size of a speaker’s lectern. A miracle of space economy, his niche evokes the galley of a sailboat — incorporating hidden mini-fridges and artfully stacked cutting boards and utensils, and a meat slicer that pulls out on a sliding shelf so Mr. Hotis can compose charcuterie plates.

“Believe it or not, I actually prefer working in this sort of limited space,” Mr. Hotis told me after several visits. “It forces me to be more creative, to make more intelligent choices about what to cook.”

His one-page menu is succinct, but it always has a few of what he calls “curveballs” in it: unusual ingredients that marry in surprisingly nuanced ways. Among the excellent dishes I tried were a “winter stew” (actually more of a richly flavored soup) bobbing with coins of rabbit sausage and heirloom Royal Corona beans; a thick-crusted panini sandwich layered with meaty Spanish sardines, a shallot lemon zest gremolata, and a smear of Sriracha mayo; and a hearty salad of slow-cooked wheat berries and kale, studded with wine-soaked raisins and maple-glazed walnuts (Mr. Hotis prepares the raisins and walnuts in house, as he does almost all his condiments.)

The one drawback to working on such a small scale is that menu items sometimes run out; it was with great wistfulness that friends and I watched one night as the last plate of delicate smoked-salmon rillette was delivered to the couple seated next to us. But we were placated by the arrival of two splendid desserts — a silken goat-milk panna cotta and a luxuriant salted caramel pudding (the first made by Mr. Hotis, the second by Ms. Chadwick-Hotis). Also, by the realization that we now had a perfect excuse to return.


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