If you liked Bonda at its former Westport/Saugatuck location, you’ll love its new incarnation in Fairfield’s Greenfield Hill (the former home of La Colline Verte and Fraiche). Sure, we miss Abbondanza – owner/chef Jamie Cooper’s former Saugatuck gourmet deli/catering operation and site of the original Bonda. But we’re excited he’s now focused on the restaurant and taking it to the next level in this new location. It’s a clean, inviting space, with warm orange walls, fresh white trim, vintage posters and comfortable seating. The small, sixty-seat restaurant was nearly filled to capacity when we visited on an otherwise quiet Tuesday evening in October. For good reason. In fact, for at least three very good reasons.
Reason 1: The Bonda-licious food. Inventive yet simple dishes, expertly prepared. Although the menu has a classic American backbone, Jamie treats the world as his pantry. On any given night guests can experience ingredients and flavors from across the globe. Though the menu is not huge, it covers all the bases. We found it tough to choose just one appetizer and entrée apiece.
For me, Bonda’s signature starter is the grilled romaine with parsley-caper vinaigrette and shaved parmigiano. How can a head of lettuce taste this good? Because it’s perfectly grilled to wilt and char, yet retain its crunch. Then it’s drizzled with a tangy, chewy, flavorful vinaigrette, combining good quality olive oil, balsamic vinegar, bits of caper, parsley, garlic, jalapeno and tomato. And then it’s blanketed with piquant parmigiano shavings. Thus, lowly lettuce is elevated to something regal.
The heart of palm and avocado salad was also fresh and artfully presented, with pristine green avocado chunks, crunchy red-ringed radish slices, sweet corn, crisp spears of jicama and hearts of palm, topped with crackly toasted quinoa and rich, sweet macadamia nuts. It was both simple and interesting, with wonderful texture. The passionfruit vinaigrette was a nice complement (though somewhat less zesty than we’d hoped).
Oh, the heavenly spaghetti alla puttanesca. Perfectly al dente pasta in a rich olive-caper sauce. Imbued with bold olive flavor, it was full of chunky fresh tomato, spicy hot pepper and refreshing bits of parsley. Though three of us shared a half order, it was BIG on flavor.
With a nod to Jamie’s Mediterranean know-how, the sausage with pan roasted cauliflower, caramelized onions, raisins and pine nuts was also a worthy starter. The sausage was well seasoned without packing too much heat. This slight spiciness contrasted nicely with the sweet caramel flavor of the onions and raisins, while the toasty pine nuts provided great nutty flavor and textural interest.
For “Seconds,” we sampled both of the menu’s fish entrées. The pan roasted wild pacific salmon was a clear favorite. It was a simple preparation of mild, perfectly cooked pink salmon, topped with crisp haricot verts and slightly charred caramelized onions, served over an excellent, creamy cauliflower-white bean puree. A drizzle of sweet balsamic reduction heightened the flavor and tied the elements together.
Our next fish was the pan roasted branzino. Crunchy on top, covered with intensely tangy preserved lemon, the flaky white fish rested on a bed of braised escarole, fingerling potatoes, with olives, fennel and cherry tomato in a lemon-infused broth. Though not quite as memorable as the salmon, the fish was flavorful . . . and we enjoyed the rich variety of accompanying vegetables.
We couldn’t leave without tasting Bonda’s acclaimed tequila-chipotle braised lamb. Though I am not usually a big fan of lamb dishes, Bonda does something extraordinary with this one. The entrée is deconstructed, served in an array of small bowls and a foil packet of hot grilled corn tortillas. The tequila-chipotle braised lamb itself is meltingly tender, smoky, with just a bit of heat. It absolutely explodes, however, when spooned onto a hot tortilla with the excellent accompaniments. The citrus black beans are firm (never mushy), savory and delicious, prepared with shreds of lime zest. Another bowl contains chunks of perfectly ripe avocado and tangy/sweet pickled red onions. The combination of flavors and textures, stuffed in a soft corn tortilla, is both unusual and addictive.
By the time we finished those tortillas, we too were stuffed. But this was a birthday celebration and birthdays require dessert. Sam, our server, recommended the warm apple turnover . . . and it did not disappoint. A seasonal charmer, the warm, delicately seasoned apples and tender, flaky pastry arrived dusted with powdered sugar and drizzled with apple cider reduction. Naturally, it was served with a creamy scoop of vanilla ice cream. It was delicious and, unlike many desserts of its kind, not at all cloying.
We also sampled the chocolate pot au crème. Though not the silky smooth texture we expected, the firm, almost grainy, rich chocolate base had a divine chocolate flavor, subtly enhanced by a bit of mild chipotle. It was topped with smooth vanilla crème, providing textural interest. It paired beautifully with the well-made decaf cappuccinos – and satisfied all chocoholic cravings.
Reason 2: The Wine. If excellent food were not enough, Bonda also has a varied and interesting wine list. And there is now -- for the first time at this location -- a full service bar. (In fact, according to Jamie, there has not been a bar in Greenfield Hill for over one hundred years.) At Jamie’s recommendation we shared a bottle of Roaring Meg Pinot Noir, a New Zealand Pinot with hints of red and black berry fruits and oak spice. It was both satisfying and reasonably priced.
Reason 3: The friendly Bonda-tmosphere. Owner and executive chef Jamie, hostess Kate, Sam our server, and the rest of the Bonda staff (many of whom have been with Bonda since its early Saugatuck days) are warm, welcoming and accommodating. They are knowledgeable about the menu and wine list and seem genuinely interested in their patrons and the quality of the dining experience.
There is nothing pretentious about Bonda. Rather, dining at Bonda is generally (and genuinely) a friendly experience. The staff is friendly. Other diners tend to be friendly. And on our last visit, the CTBites fans at the bar were exceedingly friendly. (Thanks, Kevin and Stu, for your steadfast devotion to CTBites . . . and to Ms. Webster!)
Note that the newly renovated space’s high ceilings and hardwood floors tend to amplify sound. The restaurant can be loud at times, but Jamie and company have met with soundproofing specialists and are working to fix the situation.
The word is out. With fabulous food, wine and atmosphere, reasons abound to visit the new Bonda. It’s open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner only. And reservations are definitely recommended.
BONDA 75 Hillside Road, Fairfield 203.292.9555