With the dining landscape changing as quickly as the daily menu, foodies need to know where—and what—to eat now. These local restaurants stack up
photographs by Melani Lust
Many riches are sourced from the sprawling stone-walled farms of Connecticut. And as autumn’s chill accelerates our appetite for comfort food, we celebrate the change of seasons by changing our daily menus, too, savoring soups, slow-roasted meats, squashes, apples and all things harvested close to home. This seasonal shift keeps New Englanders grounded, satisfying our desire to live in the culinary moment. If you’re craving fare that reflects our area’s bounty—or you want to bring out-of-town friends to sample the flavors of the farms and waters of New England—these local restaurants can oblige.
Also in New Canaan, Chef Robert Ubaldo of Farmer’s Table plucks some of the vegetables from his own backyard in Pound Ridge. Ubaldo is wild about the wild arugula he grows, which he tosses into his terrific winter mix of lettuce. People love his lettuce so much, they order in large quantities to serve at dinner parties. Seasonal soups have a strong following, too, particularly the not-too-heavy seafood chowder loaded with clams, scallops, shrimp, crab and potatoes. Ubaldo sources many ingredients from his brother, who runs John Boy’s Farm in Cambridge, New York. The brothers’ foray into farming began when they bought chickens for their mom for Christmas—a gift she had been wanting for years. Now Robert serves smoked duck from John Boy’s, along with an excellent cheese plate that includes aged Gouda, Nancy’s Hudson Valley Camembert, and Clothbound Cheddar from Vermont. Other go-to options on his menu include a lentil-quinoa salad, grilled shrimp salad and Maine scallops. Says Ubaldo, “The food here is pretty simple, and it’s meant to be that way.” 21 Forest St., 203-594-7890
Jennifer Balin at Sugar & Olives in Norwalk has always brought in organic, local ingredients, and now the farms and chefs are coming to her. With an expanded location, she’ll soon open the garage-style doors to create a mini indoor farmers’ market. Each week, the market will highlight four or so farms from a rotating group of twenty. (Sugar & Olives is also the pickup spot for several restaurant deliveries from Connecticut farms; chefs fromTerrain and Le Farm can be spotted collecting produce on Tuesdays.) Balin’s menu includes perhaps the most local salad you can find: smoked blue fish from the Local Catch, mustard greens from Two Guys in Woodbridge, and eggs from Westport’s Speckled Rooster Farm. Upcoming plans call for Sunday family-style dinners and a boxed dinner-to-go made up of foods that travel well–think flash-fried poussin coated in chick-pea flour with succulent sweet potato mash. 21 Lois St., sugarandolives.com
Though many restaurants in our area serve seafood from the Sound and Atlantic, Rowayton Seafood Restaurant and Market has an award-winning selection with classic New England dishes on the seasonal menu. “We’ve been doing seafood so long that people know us for that. They know they can order anything here,” says Chef Chris North. “We pride ourselves on having the best seafood.” Their Connecticut Bluepoint oysters are sourced from Norm Bloom & Son of South Norwalk, and the swordfish and tuna come from Montauk-based fishermen. The hardshell lobsters, U-10 scallops, littlenecks and steamers originate in Maine. And you can take your taste of New England-to-go by ordering from the fresh market next door, where everything is cut daily. 89 Rowayton Ave., rowaytonseafood.com
Our local dining scene has been heating up with a great selection of restaurants opening their doors. Some have been around just a few months, others are more well seasoned, having had more time to hit their stride. Here’s the 411 on the top dishes at each place, so that you can fully enjoy the newer hangouts in town.
A spot that seemed to catch on the moment it opened, this classic all-American bar and restaurant is a comfortable place to grab a drink as you step off Metro North or to catch up with friends over a meal. An expansive bar boasts thirty-one draught handles for pouring stouts, ales and lagers; at lunchtime, all wines are $6 per glass. Waiters really put the social in the name, with friendly service that makes you feel like a regular on your first visit. Equally welcoming are the hours: all day, every day, starting at 11:30 a.m.
Menu standouts: Among the most requested dishes are the Swedish meatballs served with foie gras gravy; pork belly sliders; the crazy-good short ribs; and fish and chips. Popular apps are the scallops, wings, fried calamari, fish tacos, and specials like the buratta hamburgers made from grass- fed organic beef and served with black-truffle mayo are top-notch. For lighter fare, try the beet salad and the halibut or salmon. But leave a little room for the apple crumble or root beer float with mascarpone ice cream. 10 Center Street, dariensocialct.com
This Mexican meets farm-to-table eatery is an offshoot of the original Estia’s Little Kitchen in Sag Harbor, New York. This charming cafe decorated with Americana features nightly specials and an outstanding brunch. “So much comes from the Farmer’s Market that our dinner menu may still be in the works at noon,” says owner Colin Ambrose. Order by 6:15 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and you can take advantage of a three-course prix fixe dinner. Unlike some dinner deals, where you’re limited to a few options that may or may not float your boat, this meal includes a soup or salad, your choice of any entrée on the menu plus dessert, for $28.
Menu standouts: Potato-crusted flounder tops the list, along with grilled fish tacos that are also made with flounder and served with a house-made guacamole and salsa. Paella is a great dish for a couple to share. People rave about the posole soup. For breakfast, try the breakfast bowls, such as Robbie’s Gringo Hash (red beans with chorizo, rice, two eggs, corn tortillas and avocado) and buttermilk pancakes with blueberry, banana or apple. Chef Carissa Waechter, also trained as a pastry chef, makes a mean banana cream pie, as well as seasonal pies and cookies. 1020 Post Road, Darien; estiasamerican.com
Boulevard 18 Bistro & Wine Bar
A French bistro in the space that formerly housed Aloi, this elegant eatery captures that Parisian je ne sais quoi, with a map of the City of Light covering one wall and comfortable Bordeaux-red booths that invite you to linger. From the chef-owner of Strada 18 in SoNo, the restaurant covers all the bistro classics like croque monsieur, salade Niçoise, and steak frites.
A solid wine list offers more than fifty French varietals.
Menu standouts: Begin with sinfully good small bites such as Gougeres (gruyere cheese puffs); Devils on Horseback (cheese-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon) and deviled eggs. Housemade sausages include less-expected varieties like duck-and-red-wine, as well as seafood. The juicy, flavorful steak frites are served with delicious sauces—your choice of au poivre, blue cheese, shallot marrow or Maître’d Hôtel butter—and a mass of crispy shoestring frites. Dessert: chocolate mousse. 62 Main Street, 203-594-9900
Sails American Grill
This nautical New American restaurant that features a yacht-like dining room, complete with real sails covering the ceiling and loving cups on the mantel, has quickly become a Rowayton mainstay. In the nearly two years since the restaurant’s opening, Sails has reeled in regulars with Chef Nathan Kramer’s fare, from the classic lobster bisque and angus burgers to his inventive salads and fish specials. This fall Chef Kramer is launching a new menu that emphasizes the season’s best produce while continuing to deliver the dishes guests love. Book a table for Tuesday or Sunday night, and your bottle of wine with dinner will be half price.
Menu standouts: On the new fall menu, the kale salad plays on a classic French frissee-bacon lardon with an organic poached egg, pepper-crusted bacon and tomatoes topping the greens. A housemade squash ravioli with carmelized apples, butternut squash, toasted pecans and pancetta is served in an amazing light sage cream sauce. The organic half chicken is popular (it’s sourced from a Long Island farm) and the fall version will be paired with broccolini and cracked barley in a natural sauce with rosemary and lemon. You should also try the excellent coffee-ancho-chili-rubbed pork chops with toasted hazelnut, Brussels sprouts and garlic, and the signature grilled marinated skirt steak with peppercorn-cognac sauce. 148 Rowayton Ave., sailsamericangrill.com
This quaint Darien restaurant would feel at home in a British village, with its cobblestone brick paths leading up to the glossy double black doors. It’s been two years since The Goose opened in the old Black Goose space, with its massive, historic wood bar retained. In fact, the place was reopened by a group of local investors who literally wanted their bar back. Of course, there’s plenty of fare to recommend in the lightened-up and refreshed dining room and a menu for your goslings, too.
Menu standouts: The Maine Lobster sliders are crowd pleasers. “They’re good in the bar, good in the dining room, good as a lunch snack,” says The Goose’s Matt Polidoro. Other signatures include the baby back barbecue ribs, linguini with clams and the porchetta entrée–a bacon-wrapped roasted pork loin stuffed with spinach, mozzarella and tomatoes, with a red-wine gravy, mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetable. On the new fall menu, which has just gone to print, the lemon sole and hearty boeuf bourguignon are among the favorite additions. 972 Post Road, thegoosedarien.com
Taking over the space that was Pine Social (and a few other predecessors before that), South End specializes in Italian comfort foods from Chef Nick Martschenko, a CIA grad and Gramercy Tavern alum. Through a renovation, the restaurant space has been opened up and the décor blends old and new with rustic wood boards and antique fixtures paired with more contemporary linen-covered banquettes.
Menu standouts: The chef’s top dishes include tagliatelle Bolognese; grilled fresh bacon with mustard spaetzle; and Nonna’s meatballs (they’re tutto bene). Also try the strawberry spinach salad with candied walnuts and Coach Farms goat cheese; fried baby artichokes with garlic aioli; and roasted Pennsylvania Amish chicken with perfectly pureed potatos. 36 Pine Street, southendnewcanaan.com
We all need our sugar fix now and then. For a creative confection, try these sweet spots.
Chunky Pam’s Sweet Shoppe
Named for the owner’s bulldog, this corner store in Darien houses a six-foot-tall gumball machine, a wall of old-fashioned glass candy jars and a blackboard covered in doodles. Two years ago owner Clifton Benham quit his finance job to open the shop. “I had an epiphany one day. I can’t sit here and do this for the next twenty-five years,” he says. “As a child I was obsessed with candy stores.” Now kids come here for fun treats, and parents rely on the location for parties. “I’ve hosted 135 parties in the past year,” says Benham.
Top treats: Kids are loving everything blue and sour, and Lego block candies, which snap together. 1096 Boston Post Road, chunkypamsdarien.com
SoNo Baking Company
“It’s a good thing,” Martha Stewart has said of John Baricelli’s popular SoNo bakery located near the waterfront. A third-generation baker, Baricelli and his team turn out all varieties of tarts, cookies, muffins, pies and cakes. Dessert trend alert: “With everyone’s focus on getting the freshest produce that’s in season, we find that people are looking for in-season desserts,” says Baricelli. He’s just finished a cookbook called The Seasonal Baker, loaded with recipes such as Blueberry Cheesecake in Glass Jars.
Top Treats: For Thanksgiving, pumpkin and apple pies are most popular, but Baricelli also whips up a cranberry pear pie. 101 Water Street, sonobaking.com
If you love the gelato in Italy, this New Canaan spot will bring back sweet memories. Opened seven years ago by Nuccia Mazzonetto and family, this authentic gelateria churns out some of the freshest frozen treats around; they’re made daily on the premises following the techniques the Mazzonettos used back in Milan. Top treats: Popular seasonal flavors include cranberry, apple, pear and Concord grape, as well as chestnut and peppermint candy cane around the holidays. A must-try: crepes with nutella and gelato. 26 Forest Street, 203-966-5000
This venerable family-owned market in Darien is proof that knowledge about one’s niche–in this case baked goods–has staying power. This town favorite has an impressive selection of mouth-watering cookies and gloriously decorated cakes.
Top Treats: Coconut-flavored “Coco-Loco” cupcakes; mudslide cookies made with three types of chocolate; fruit pies featuring handmade all-butter crusts; and coconut macaroons with bottoms dipped in chocolate. 24 Heights Rd., palmersmarket.com
Bored with the usual burger and fries? Thanks to these local spots, when it comes to take-out food, it’s easy to eat outside the box
The Tuscan Mercato
Alongside its top-notch butcher, this authentic market in New Canaan stocks cases of ready-made Italian dishes, such as lasagna, chicken francese, eggplant parmesan, homemade pastas with Bolognese sauce and chicken pot pies. New additions to the menu include gourmet pizzas. 134 Main Street, 203-594-9026
When you’re craving eggs and chorizo or brioche French toast, but it’s 3 p.m., Rosie’s has your number. This café and takeout shop on Elm Street from caterers Rosie and George Nammack serves breakfast all day plus superfresh sandwiches and entrées, daily soup specials and enchiladas, tacos and burritos from the Taqueria. 27 Elm Street, 203-966-8998
Inventive Indian Chef Prasad Chirnomula wakes up your palate with spicy chats, creative seafood and lamb curries, vegetarian dishes and a variety of house breads that are not the same old, such as Jalapeno Naan and Mint Paratha. When you’re ordering from this New Canaan spot, don’t forget the condiments—pick up hot pickle, mango chutney and raita to complete a great meal. 87 Main Street, 203-972-8332
We love the fabulous lineup of classic savory and sweet crèpes plus quiches, salads, Croque Monsieur or Madame and other sandwiches at this New Canaan spot. For an instant French supper or a lovely lunch, order the full quiche du jour, boxed and ready to go; Caroline will also whip up custom combination quiches if you call two hours ahead. 155 Elm Street, 203-966-9891
Vegetarians and vegans swear by this Norwalk café and juice stand for its organic juices, fresh smoothies, seasonal soups, raw food, sandwiches and more. For a healthy but hearty meal, try the No Chix Sandwich (made with a pâté of cashews and celery, along with tomatoes and sprouts, on wholegrain bread or collard wrap) or the No Tuna Melts, made with sunflower seeds and kelp. For dessert, try smoothies (mango, basil, agave, and almond milk) as well as vegan cupcakes and cookies. 31 Wall Street, 203-956-5670
Little Thai Kitchen
This fresh, authentic Thai is best enjoyed to go since, as the name implies, the Darien spot is not the most spacious place. Favorites include the lime chili shrimp; Thai curry puff; a solid rendition of Pad Thai; basil tofu and mushrooms; Massaman curry; and green curry—you dictate the level of spice. Order online through seamless.com. 4 West Avenue, 203-662-0038
We’re lucky to have some of the best sushi in Fairfield County so close to home in Darien. The homemade shumai, Vietnamese spring rolls and tuna pizza are standouts. You can order sushi a la carte, but rolls are the specialty, with fun variations such as the Spicy Lobster Cucumber, the Peanut Avocado and the Godzilla, with lightly fried spicy tuna, spicy shrimp and crab. 390 Post Road, 203-655-4999
Good Food, Good Things
Tucked behind the home goods and gift shop, the café portion of this Darien darling boasts fresh food from Diane Browne Catering. Seasonal soups are a draw, with daily specials like pumpkin-corn chowder and meatball minestrone, as well as paninis, focaccias, turkey meatloaf, homemade quiches, plus baked goods. 865 Boston Post Road, 203-655-7355
In the mood for home cooking but don’t want to break a sweat? Let Aux Délices’ gourmet shop do the heavy lifiting. You can pick up roasted salmon with fig sauce, chicken cacciatore, popular barbecue turkey burgers, as well as a hearty boeuf bourguignon or filet mignon. Delicious seasonal sides are available, too. 25 Old King’s Highway N., auxdelicesfoods.com
Tried + True
As trends come and go, some restaurants crack that magical formula for capturing loyal customers. These three long-standing town favorites are still tasty after all these years.
Open since 1979
Recipe for Success: With the friendly staff and consistently good yet reasonably priced food, Gates in New Canaan is a go-to for lunch and dinner. People travel from neighboring towns every weekend to meet for brunch and sip the legendary Bloody Marys. Salads are a draw too, and they remain largely unchanged by popular demand. The versatile chef makes hand-crafted ravioli Bolognese, excellent fish and chips and an Ahi tuna tartare.
What to Eat Now: Lobster lovers applaud the fall menu, which features Maine’s finest in lobster mac and cheese, lobster rolls and lobster salad. Recent upgrades to the wine list include a batch of California varietals that are a great value, and a new drinks menu features craft beers like Whale’s Tail ale. 10 Forest St., 966-8666
Open since 1986
Recipe for Success: “People feel like they’re home when they’re here,” says David Johnson, the original chef and now owner who runs the Darien restaurant with his wife and son. “The food isn’t flashy. It’s real food. Comfort food.” Regulars come in several times a week and order the same thing every time. Kids who grew up coming here now return as adults. The bar seats just seven people, yet there’s always a group hanging out on weekends. In back, the spacious patio attracts a crowd in season.
What to Eat Now: On the recently updated menu, Chef David added a Buffalo Chicken Wrap, a Haddock Wrap and a Roasted Chicken Salad. But certain dishes have been served here for decades and for good reason. These include the cajun popcorn, baked brie and grilled barbecue shrimp appetizers; Cobb salad; veal Lugano; confit of duck; pan-seared sea scallops; and the sauteed calf’s liver with onion, bacon, red potatoes and vegetables. “It’s like mom used to make,” says Johnson of the liver. If there’s something you’re missing from the old menu—people have been asking for the curried chicken salad—they’ll cook it for you. 22 Center St., 203-655-9944
Open since 1981
Recipe for Success: Comparable to the Cheers of Darien, this little eatery and bar run by chef and owner Bryan Malcarney defines the neighborhood hangout. “I have my regulars. They have assigned seats and they fight over chairs. Everybody knows each other,” says Carol Walshon, who’s been the bartender here for fourteen years. In addition to the well-prepared all-American menu, the happy hours are a great time and good value, starting at 5:30 p.m. with free appetizers served. Bring it on.
What to Eat Now: The creamy clam chowder has received awards–including ribbons from the 2012 Annual Chowdafest in Westport (it came in second out of fifty strong contenders)–and Rory’s impressive Cobb salad is a bestseller. Burgers are famous and the Meggin, a turkey sandwich with stuffing and cranberry sauce, is popular all year long. 416 Post Road, 203-655-9453