412 Main St., Middletown, (860) 788-6544, usrestaurantct.com
We appear to be having a fried-chicken moment. As culinary crazes go, we may have moved past all things bacon and pork (or some of us may have at least). Swine time is perhaps behind us. It’s not clear what the food obsession of the next few years will be, but fried chicken is in the running. The lure of fried chicken is what recently drew me to Us, a new restaurant on Middletown’s Main Street.
Brooklyn restaurants like Pies & Thighs and The Commodore have put fowl back on center stage. And national magazines, newspapers and publishing houses have followed along, offering instructions on how to fry the best chicken. Somewhere along the line fried chicken went from being a standard comfort food — something practically everyone made (especially south of the Mason Dixon Line) to an intimidating challenge, one that required special equipment, expertise, advance planning and bravery. (Striking the balance between a crispy exterior crust and moist and juicy meat inside is tricky — many people have served a drumstick that was golden brown on the outside but pink and undercooked at the bone. Not cool.)
Fried chicken at sit-down restaurants isn’t ubiquitous in these parts. Not that there’s any shortage of Popeye’s, KFC or other grub-in-a-tub action. (I’m partial to Bojangle’s, which requires a roadtrip.) When I saw that Us serves fried chicken, I was ready to pay a visit. Even more enticing, they serve chicken and waffles. That combination of fried chicken and waffles is a little mysterious. (Incidentally, chicken and waffles recently got a jolt in its profile when the combo was a finalist in a Lay’s potato chip “Do Us a Flavor” contest, which sought out new flavor suggestions from customers.) It’s generally associated with soul food, and I’ve read that it was considered to be the classic late-night (or early-morning) party food at Harlem rent parties, back in the 1920s and ‘30s. Think of it as the 24-hour-diner fare of a different time.
It was neither late night nor early morning when I stopped by at Us. It was a slow afternoon, between lunch and dinner, but the kitchen was still cooking, and still serving fried chicken, surprisingly. Us is a spacious restaurant, with a cool and sleek white interior, with black accents. There are huge paintings of contemporary soul and pop artists on the wall. Flatscreens behind the bar played hypnotic aquarium footage. The stereo cranked the smoothest of smooth jazz.
The spot used to be a couple of other different restaurants. The transformation of the space is pretty remarkable. There’s a lot of room in there.
Us is a nice addition to the wildly eclectic mix of restaurants in Middletown. There’s Tibetan, dozens of pizza and Italian places, Vietnamese, Mexican, Jamaican, BBQ, solid pub fare and a lot more. Us serves soul food with a Caribbean touch to it. The menu includes pan-seared snapper, jerk-spiced fillet mignon, wine-braised oxtail, curry goat, pernil, ribs with Hopping John and collards, and quite a bit more. This is soul food and Island cooking with fancy frills. The draft beer selection caught my attention. There was an oak-aged beer from Inness and Gunn, a popular Scottish craft brewery. The always refreshing Peroni and a saison from Connecticut’s own Two Roads were also on tap, among a few other notables. I thought the selection showed good sense, and it captured the kind of bold wide-ranging spirit that seems to infuse the cooking at Us, too.
I ordered the chicken and waffles. That, aside from some sweet and soft cornbread that came before my meal, was all I ate at Us. But it gave me an idea of how they do things. It turns out the chicken and waffles were sort of a riff on chicken and waffles. To start with, the waffles were red velvet waffles, meaning they were bright red (food coloring) and sort of cake-y. And the chicken was a boneless chicken breast that had been fried, sort of what you might call “chicken fried chicken.” (My definition of fried chicken includes a bone.) Upping the boldness factor, the plate, in addition to little pools of maple syrup and squirts of soft butter, had been adorned with dots of sriracha.
The chicken had a pleasing crust, with a hint of herbs (thyme?) in the exterior and the convergence of sweet and savory, soft and crunchy, spicy hot and buttery made for a fun and funky meal. My thinking is that just regular old chicken and waffles is probably enough to perplex many diners, but to make the dish even racier by including red-velvet waffles and fiery accents of sriracha, I thought was a sign of boldness on the part of the kitchen. I hope it pays off. And I hope more customers are intrigued and impressed than the few that might be left scratching their heads.