Last Saturday night we followed an anonymous tip from a ctbites reader...a reader I need to thank. Apparently, in a small shopping center off Main Street in Norwalk sat a food gem, a hidden treasure with beautifully prepared organic and local sustainable produce..or so this reader said. The restaurant was Nicholas Roberts Gourmet Bistro. The restaurant's web site revealed a catering company open for breakfast, lunch and Thur.-Sun. dinner dining. We were skeptical as we pulled up to the non-descript exterior, flanked by Hot & Speedy Pizza. However, as we walked past the glass case of wonderful looking prepared foods, the thrill of finding something undiscovered was upon us. We were directed to a casual but pleasant dining room with about 10 tables. Candles and trees donned with Christmas lights provided relaxed lighting, while chalk signage covering several black board painted walls gave a whimsical flourish to this minimally designed space. We handed over our wine (as it is BYOB) and hoped for the best. Spoiler alert....It was one of the most inventive and delicious meals I have had in Fairfield County. If this is the first you are hearing of Nicholas Roberts..make this your next meal out.
Chef Robert Troilo of Nicholas Roberts Fine Foods, started his career working at famed eateries like Homestead Inn, Habana and Ocean Drive. About 8 years ago, people began asking him to cater parties and Nicholas Roberts Fine Foods emerged. When describing his early catering career, Chef Troilo said he cooked everything from roast pigs to quiche, and this remarkable versatility can be seen in his restaurant, which opened to the public 2 1/2 years ago.
The menu touts itself as "Contemporary Cuisine with an American Soul". It reveals the creativity of a chef who has both a sense of humor and a real appreciation for the ingredients that make up every dish, as well as a relaxed sophistication. Several dishes have names that simply make you smile, like Lamb Kabobs with Really Good Herb and Spicy Yogurt Sauce. We sat for an inordinately long time reviewing our ordering strategy, as every dish looked interesting and inventive. We finally put a stake (no, not a steak) in the ground, ordered Crawfish Beignets and Makers Mark Mac & Cheese "for the table" (because how could you not?) and settled in as our friendly and knowledgeable server poured the first bottle of wine.
The first dish to arrive was the Crawfish Beignets with Cajun Aioli. The presentation of the aioli in a Masons jar was not lost on us. The crawfish were GBD, golden brown, and delicious on the outside, fried perfectly with no sign of greasiness, and revealed tender and perfectly cooked crawfish inside. The aioli had great Cajun flavor with nice heat. It was just a great dish done right.
Next to arrive was the Napoleon of Sriracha Tuna Tartar & Avocado. For those of you unfamiliar with Sriracha, it s the fiery red sauce commonly found on the table at Vietnamese and Thai establishments. This beautiful tuna dish was layered with finely sliced avocado, and plated with blue and yellow house fried corn chips. I appreciated the juxtaposition of the the salty crunchy chips commonly found with Mexican take-out and the Asian spices of the melt-in-your-mouth sushi grade tuna. I've been dreaming of this dish ever since. It was fabulous.
I also ordered one of their daily specials, a green gazpacho, which had a wonderful garden fresh flavor of heirloom tomatoes and finely diced cucumber with a subtle kick. It had such a clean flavor, it almost reminded me of an intermezzo. I also appreciated the deviation from the standard red gazpacho, (just one of the many culinary surprises throughout the evening), and could have eaten another bowl...or two.
And now I will tell you about the Coriander Crusted Sea Scallops with coconut cilantro curry & corn pudding (seen above, and a steal at $9.95)...perhaps the most beautiful food presentation I've seen in recent years. Two large scallops arrived table side in a blaze of glory, nestled on top of a large scallop shell. We found out that the fire underneath was kindled from Kosher salt and grain alcohol. Who knew? It arrived like a vision, and it tasted as good as it looked. The scallops were juicy, and the coriander was seared into the top forming a light crust. They were remarkably tasty and stunning to behold.
With 4 of us in attendance, we managed to order most of the 5 items making up the Salad course (which I should point out is all reasonably priced under $7, while apps ran from $8-$12). The Spinach & Bacon Salad boasted shiitake mushrooms, avocado, and a very light shallot vinaigrette. It had a great mouthfeel and a nice contrast between the soft mushrooms and avocado and the crunchy spinach leaves and bacon. I have had versions of this salad in other restaurants and I appreciated the use of Savoy spinach rather than baby spinach, as well as the replacement of the standard hard boiled egg for avocado, which added texture and taste. The vegetables were wonderfully fresh, as if just picked (minus the dirt), and we all enjoyed the great thick chunks of bacon lingering at the bottom. Chef Troilo sources his produce from the Darien Farmers Market to take advantage of the very freshest seasonal ingredients, and it shows.
My friend was very pleased with her Organic Red Leaf & Romaine salad with apples, pears, dried cherries, almonds, and balsamic vinaigrette. The sweetness of the fruit played nicely against the vinegar. There was a Classic Caesar in the mix as well, which was rumored to be fine, but not as divine as the rest of our appetizer course. And now...on to the entrees.
My husband selected what we were told was a signature dish, the Coffee Rubbed & Stout Braised Short Ribs of Beef served with mashed potatoes & grilled summer vegetables (seen above). The ribs arrived piled high in a very dark, rich sauce that looked almost like mole and were braised to such tender perfection, they literally fell apart as you took the first bite. The mashed potatoes were a nice compliment and the sauce had great hints of coffee.
The Chile Dusted Pork Loin was another winner. A nice thick cut of pork like this can often get dried out, but this must have been brined leaving it moist and tender. It was served with a marvelously tangy plum sauce, rich with vinegar (which ate more like a relish) that really made the dish, as well as an inventive side of watermelon infused with cayenne pepper. Also on the plate was a respectable black bean and corn salsa. The spicy watermelon was such a delightful surprise and the relish was positively drinkable.
The Makers Mark Mac & Cheese was also a crowd-pleaser. It had a nice crunchy crust atop a delicious Béchamel with a very nuanced flavor for this "kid favorite". Troilo told us he flambés the alcohol before incorporating it, so you get the flavor without the hangover. It was scrumptious. The "table" practically licked the bowl.
After eating half the menu, you would think we couldn't possibly have room for dessert, but never having been one to leave without the final course, I ordered the carrot cake and the Pot Au Creme for "the table". The Pot Au Creme, despite its diminutive size, packs some serious dessert punch. The coffee and cardamon in this dish get caramelized first and are then added to the chocolate and cream. It was divine. The carrot cake had a strong crystalized ginger taste and was very moist with a lovely cream cheese frosting. The coffee, sourced from a local roasting company in New Canaan was also quite good.
We walked back out into the shopping center parking lot marveling at the top notch dining experience and the very reasonable prices. In fact, a party of four (not ordering half the menu) can enjoy the excellent food at Nicholas Roberts Fine Foods for under $140 (yes..that is $70 a couple). Troilo makes a conscious effort to keep his prices low so the masses can enjoy. And, boy did we enjoy. Chef Troilo and his excellent kitchen staff are doing everything right here.
Hit up an ATM machine before you head out. It is cash only. Also, it should be noted that the breakfast and lunch menus look equally inventive and delicious. More on that later.
Nicholas Roberts Gourmet Bistro 75 Main Street, Norwalk. 203.229.0035