The regulars know that a healthy appetite is a pre-requisite for eating at the Whistle Stop Cafe in Deep River, where owner Hedy Watrous aims to see her customers leave well-fed.
The atmosphere at this tiny, sometimes boisterous breakfast and lunch spot, where Watrous and her staff treat customers like family, is as appealing as the owner's inventive menu. Egg dishes, particularly the overstuffed omelets and variations on Eggs Benedict, are crowd favorites.
This weekend, Watrous, who trained under a French chef, has turned her sights to Ireland, where she just visited. On Friday night, she will prepare Irish specialties for the Taste of Ireland Festival, sponsored by the Deep River Rotary Club at St. Joseph Parish Hall in Chester. For her Whistle Stop customers, the chef has planned an early toast to St. Patrick's Day. She will mix and match foods that she tasted in neighborhood pubs to give the weekend menu an Irish flavor.
Her interpretation of an Irish breakfast is an omelet stuffed with a golden potato pancake, a slice of grilled ham and "bangers" (breakfast sausages). Grilled tomato halves add some color to the plate, and baked beans and butter-slathered wheat toast are a must.
"That's a man's dish," she said as put the finishing touches on a trial run of the Emerald Isle dish. Indeed, the breakfast could easily serve two.
While the Whistle Stop Cafe turns out dozens of orders for its signature egg dishes, burgers and quesadillas, the chef's white board lists daily specials that she creates on a whim.
"I'm thinking all of the time" about new dishes that will tempt customers, she says. Much of the inspiration comes from trips to the market, where Watrous might spy a new ingredient or a seasonal vegetable and decide to build a dish around it. "We make everything fresh here. We always have our own corned beef hash. We cook our own fruit for the stuffed french toast, like caramelized bananas."
Watrous celebrated her 15th year at the grill last November, but the tiny breakfast and lunch spot has been in her family for much longer. Her grandparents, Ed and Lucy Goff, ran the place in the 1930s. When Watrous returned to Deep River in the early 1990s, after operating an Italian restaurant in Key West, Fla., she brought the Whistle Stop back into the family.
>> The Whistle Stop Cafe at 108 Main St., Deep River, is open Thursday through Monday, 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. 860-526-4122.
Tips>> Watrous uses Irish-cut oats to add texture to the potato pancake. She recommends grating the potato right before frying the pancakes; if potato is grated in advance, it begins to discolor as it stands.
>> Use a good-quality ham, sliced about 1/8-inch thick, that isn't too lean.
>> The skillet, preferably a cast-iron one, should be preheated to "smoking hot" before adding the potato pancake, ham and sausage, the chef suggests. A hot omelet pan over medium-high heat is best for cooking eggs.
THE WHISTLE STOP CAFE'S IRISH BREAKFAST>> 1/2 of a medium red potato, skin on
>> 2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
>> 2 tablespoons uncooked oats
>> 1 tablespoon flour
>> Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
>> 1 slice baked or spiral ham
>> 2 links of breakfast sausage
>> 1 tomato, cut in half
>> 2 eggs
>> 2 ounces sliced Irish Dubliner cheese or cheddar cheese
>> Baked beans, hot
To make the pancake: Preheat a large iron skillet over high heat. Grate the potato into a mixing bowl. Add the onion, oats, flour, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix until blended. When pan is hot — a drop of water will sizzle when dropped into the pan — cover bottom of pan with vegetable oil spray or a tablespoon of oil, and add potato mixture, shaping into a pancake. Cook until pancake is nicely browned, about 5 minutes, then turn and cook until the other side is browned.
While pancake is cooking, add ham slice, sausage and tomato halves to pan, and cook until heated through and browned.
Heat another skillet over medium-high heat until skillet is hot. Spray with vegetable oil spray or oil bottom of pan with vegetable oil. Beat eggs and season with salt and pepper. Pour eggs into skillet, and cook over medium-high heat.
When eggs begin to set, lift edge of egg with a spatula, tilt pan and let uncooked egg flow to the pan. Cook until eggs are set or to desired doneness, then layer pancake, ham, sausage and cheese on top of eggs. Fold edges of egg over the layers. Transfer omelet to a dish, and garnish with tomatoes, baked beans and toast.
Serves 1 abundantly, but can easily be split to feed two.
Watch as Whistle Shop chef Hedy Watrous cooks up a hearty Irish breakfast with bacon and bangers at courant.com/onegreatdish