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Most Americans celebrate independence just once a year, but not Brendan Walsh. The Elms Restaurant and Tavern in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where the 38-year-old Walsh is chef, is steeped in Colonial history, and the influence extends to his inventive cooking. For Walsh, 18th-century recipes aren't relics: they're jumping-off points for a New American cuisine composed of equal parts tradition and experimentation.

Walsh and his wife, Cris, were high school sweethearts in Ridgefield. They met again in the mid-Eighties in Manhattan, where he had settled after years of travel and where he became a celebrated pioneer of southwestern cuisine at Arizona 206. After they married and had their first child, they abandoned urban life for Long Island. And though they opened three successful restaurants there, as they had more children they found themselves drawn back to their families in Ridgefield. On impulse, the Walshes called The Elms, learned that the chef was retiring and made their move. 

A handsome gray clapboard building dating from 1790, The Elms stands about 500 yards from the site of the Battle of Ridgefield, where a band of Yankees (led by Benedict Arnold) fought a battalion of redcoats three times as large. (We won.) When the Walshes arrived, a mural of the conflict was the only evidence of America in the European-style restaurant. They obliterated the Continental influence, ripping down yards of pink silk from the walls and replacing it with historically accurate stencils they applied with paint mixed from an 18th-century formula. Inspired by Colonial-era cookbooks, Walsh developed the menu. Lobster shepherd's pie with chive mashed potatoes, Connecticut seafood stew in a fennel-leek broth and apple pandowdy (spiced, sweetened fruit covered in a buttery crust) became three of his signature dishes. 

Last year the Ridgefield fire department's centenary closely coincided with the Fourth of July, giving the town yet another reason to wave its flags. After cheering on the marching bands and the fire trucks, the Walshes gathered their children (there are four now) and their friends for a barbecue. A Red, White and Blue Potato Salad added patriotic flavor, and Star-Spangled Fools--layers of raspberry, vanilla and blueberry whipped cream topped with berries--made a sweet salute to the spirit of independence. 

--Pamela Kaufman

Published July 1998
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