I rarely do repeat visits to restaurants- not for lack of desire, but ultimately, there are just so many new places to go that I rarely think of returning to places that aren’t within walking distance of my apartment, or are actually in my apartment. But I often wish there was enough time for me to go back to some of them– I wonder how they’ve developed and what their menus are now like. I watch over them with the wistful distance of an ex-lover on Facebook.Recently, Foxwoods asked me if I’d like to write about Paragon- I said yes, knowing it fell into repeat visit category. Admittedly, I was very curious. Since my last visit in 2011, the menu underwent some serious tweaking and it appeared they’d settled on a solid concept, combining a tapas-style of appetizers and a curated selection of heritage meats and other ingredients. It reads like an Ivy league résumé for gourmands. The previous meal was jarringly discordant, and I was keen to see if they’d transcended the bonds of misguided pretension that had impeded my last meal.Paragon is still secluded from the rest of the casino, accessible only by reservation and elevator ride from the main drag. When we arrived, the sky was dark outside, but the restaurant was well-lit and the pianist was playing. A few scattered couples were around, none under their mid-forties and all conservatively dressed. And yet, Paragon, aesthetically speaking, is still a little strange. Food notwithstanding, it has a style of decor that demands respect, though in a curiously overstated way. The ceilings, beautifully decorated with a backlit nebula pattern, are low and give a cramped appearance. The lighting is inconsistent, bright in some places and cozy in others. The waiters are dressed to the nines, yet still don’t know the specials and are weirdly chatty. All drinks (to my knowledge) are served in martini glasses. It may be the only remaining restaurant, Le Grand Vefour being the sole exception, to serve tableside bananas foster, which went by the wayside with tableside chateaubriand. (Charging $40 for those bananas is another story entirely.)
But behind all of that is a chef who truly cares for his food. I’ve known of Chef Scott Mickelson for some time now- he has worked at Foxwoods for over a decade, and has brightened my Facebook newsfeed with fervently enthused all-caps photos of massive king crabs and delicately marbled pieces of American wagyu beef. In this voyeurism, I see a dialogue and passion. He answers questions from the customers, he chats with his suppliers. It’s the mark of someone who does careful research to better serve the people and the food he loves.
So why do I still want more?We started our meal with fresh-baked bread and a log of butter, which, though delightful, was far too small. This is where the service trouble started. Our server came over with the bread, introduced himself, and left, presumably, we thought, to retrieve water. He returned after five minutes without water and asked about our drink preferences. Five more minutes, then water. Then drinks. Then, he came back, feverishly carrying an enormous King crab around the restaurant to show to diners as part of a special tasting menu.
The chef came out and we had a wonderful discussion about the farms and food. He brought up the specials, heretofore unknown, and made a campaign for tri-heritage bacon so impassioned that we ordered it as soon as our server returned, five minutes after chef left. It was the longest wait, and an inexplicable one given that we were one of four or five couples in the entire restaurant. When the server did return, we gave him our entire order in a rushed breath, and he immediately took off- without asking how I wanted my steak cooked.The amuse bouche is the same as yesteryear, fried chicken in a lemon sauce, but it’s prepared better and has a more balanced, citrus-forward flavor. I’m always happy to forgo neutral sorbet or fruit in favor of fried poultry.
Luckily, the appetizers were brought in rapid succession, and I managed to squeak in a hurried ‘a hair left of medium,’ to the waiter, which I prayed would be conveyed to the chef. We started our meal with the aforementioned bacon, Firefly Farms tri-heritage (large black, Berkshire, and Tamworth) pork cut into thick, meaty pieces, served with maple and vinegar and some of the most cloying, overpowering microgreens I’ve ever pushed aside. The meat was crispy and thick, more to the side of pork belly than bacon. Unfortunately, it was completely overwhelmed by the sweet accouterments and sauce. On its own, it was strong and gamey in flavor, typical of heritage and heirloom breeds. I was surprised that, with such an ardent appreciation for the farm and the product, the bacon was coated in these compensatory sauces and garnishes to mask such a distinct taste.Scallop ceviche with Asian pear, curry, kabuso, and olive oil was made with Nantucket Bay scallops, known for having the highest natural sugar content of all scallop varieties. Chef called them ‘scallop candy,’ but they were rendered unrecognizable with the pungency of the ingredients, an overall flavor scarily reminiscent of minestrone soup. If I’d had eaten these blindfolded, I wouldn’t have known they were scallops, much less distinct ones.The best appetizer of the evening, if also the messiest, was a preparation of duck rilletes atop a translucent waffle-cut potato chip, served with mache, cornichons, pickled onions, and Arethusa Farms camembert. A different preparation, though perhaps a welcomed one- here, the duck was presented in wispy, rich shreds separated from the fat, as opposed to classic pate-style paste. The acidic elements were excellent, but it was the soft, strong camembert that completed the bite.I enjoyed The King, a date-infused scotch cocktail, a rarity for me. The jammy dried fruit perfectly mitigated the harsher notes of the alcohol. With lemon oil and a lemon rind, it was like the Manhattan’s little brother.
The Bedfellow’s cocktail, with Hendrick’s, St. Germain, cucumber, lime, and yuzu was unfortunately muddled in flavor, no one ingredient standing out.Our drinks dwindled as we waited on our entrees and the music moved from pleasant, if tried piano tunes- a clever rendition of Brubeck the crowd favorite, to canned music over the speakers. Both entrees were brought out in covered Staub casserole dishes. There’s no way there’s a steak inside of that dish, I thought, as the server not only sat the dishes precariously on the table, but then took a moment to explain how heavy they were. My steak steamed amidst this, going from rare-medium to medium. With a plethora of rich, bold ingredients, like an egg over easy, brown butter mashed potatoes, and sauce foyot, I wasn’t expecting the steak to be the main flavor of the dish. However, I also wasn’t expecting each bite to taste the same. The overall flavor was decadent and monolithic, entrenched in brown butter and begging for some vegetal acidity or hell, even hot sauce, to set it off its nutty, fatty descent. The fries were a last-minute decision, prompted by the choice of either trying the $40 bananas or $10 fries, and ultimately, we opted for the spuds. Don’t shy away due to the price- these were fantastic and satisfying, with a crisp outer shell and creamy, toothsome core. Six fries looks dubious, but they’re gigantic iterations that put the steak in steak fries. It ended up being the only part of the main course that we finished.The Bedfellow’s rabbit, prepared three different ways, was a far cry from the beady, black-furred critters we’d ogled while Googling the breed, a Silver Fox rabbit. The main dish was impeccably seasoned, visually appealing, and dry as Patricia Lockwood’s poetry is asinine. Tender, snappy farro was appetizing with moist slivers of shredded rabbit, until not one, but three errant bones were erroneously consumed.Pâté on the side was creamy and herbaceous. Since our dinner last week, the rabbit has gone from three to five preparations.Our final dish, alongside some coffee, was the goat feta cheesecake with winter fruits, chocolate sponge, and crème de cassis. Despite looking somewhat like a murder scene, this was a successful dessert in part. The cheesecake was ethereally light and airy, prepared in the French style, with a strong feta and goat tang. Poached winter fruits- apricot, fig, and prune were comforting in their density. A suitable counterpart. Unfortunately, the chocolate sponge was dry and the cassis had the unfortunate resemblance to raspberry sauce slathered atop cheap desserts.
The dinner, even the entire restaurant, oozes this conflict that leads me to believe the desires of the clientele are surpassing the integrity of the food and the chef. Why would a ribeye be pushed into the oversalted realm of comfort food? Why is everything served in a martini glass? Why must bacon taste like barbecue? Paragon feels like a parody gone too far, a restaurant attempting to reach great heights yet confined by its damning location. In a world of casino buffets and cheesecake, I imagine it must get lonely at the top.
Disclaimer: The PR group for Paragon provided us with a $150 comp; we covered the difference and gratuity as well.