When I hear “sports bar,” I think lots of big screen TVs, beers, burgers, wings, nachos, anything to go with my Jets or Giants jersey. The Blind Rhino, recently opened in South Norwalk on Main Street just north of Washington, is undoubtedly a sports bar, with 27 big screen TVs, shuffleboard, darts, and jerseys adorning the walls. At the same time, it has elevated the cuisine with impressive menu items, an array of craft beers and a variety of whiskeys. Many sports bar staples are still on the menu, but with a twist!
Owner /Chef Jamie Pantanella oversees the cuisine. He has worked in restaurants and catering all over New England for the past 22 years. His most recent restaurant experience includes The Brewhouse and Gingerman SoNo. At The Blind Rhino, Pantanella hones his years of experience to offer his “highlight reel.”
The menu is not large, but each item is thoughtful and flavorful. “While having sections like wings, appetizers, soups, and sandwiches seem to be par for the course, having items like Togareshi Dry Rub Wings, Cider Braised Pork Belly Sliders, and a Sliced Ribeye Cheese Steak is exactly how we want to take the dining experience to the next level,” says manager Casey Dohme.
Like Pantanella, Dohme and their other business partner, Matt Bacco, also have a history with Gingerman SoNo. Dohme worked there for six years before opening Cask Republic in Stamford, and Bacco worked at Gingerman SoNo around the same time. He then went on to work at Gingerman’s NYC location as well as Cask Republic in New Haven.
The Blind Rhino developed quickly; they heard of the space in July, signed the lease in August, and opened to the public on October 16. In the initial fervor they suddenly realized they lacked a name. They decided the best course of action would be to journey over to a neighborhood bar, O’Neill’s, order some pints, and let the libations inspire them. The adjective “Blind” came naturally, in honor of prohibition. After a few more rounds, they added “Rhino.” “We’re fun. We like to have a good time and we want everyone who comes in to have a good time,” he says. “We our personalities show through in the name.”
I visited The Blind Rhino on a Friday night in November. The atmosphere won me over immediately, and like the menu, everything was a juxtaposition. Sports jerseys and big screen TVs lined the walls, while dim lighting evoked a sense of trendiness. In the heart of South Norwalk it was a part of the scene, but also a place where people could be casual and relaxed. Young adults made up the majority of the clientele, but I spotted a few families having dinner. A distinct dining area, separate from the bar but still in view of TVs, made it family-friendly.
My friends and I spent a bit of time in the bar before moving toward the back of the restaurant for a game of shuffleboard. After another half hour or so, we moved toward a table on the edge of the bar to try some food. I enjoyed the progression and how the layout kept our evening unfolding.
We started with the sweet potato hummus for the table. It came with house-made pita, carrots, and celery sticks. It was tasty, and certainly paid homage to the produce. The accompanying pita chips were also memorable. They were crispy and generously seasoned with herbs and spices that complemented the hummus.
We also ordered two varieties of wings. The waitress recommended their newest type, Hoisin Chili, which we were more than happy to try, and we selected the Orange Chipotle as well. The wings are offered in sets of 6, 12, or 30, and we ordered six of each. When they arrived at the table, we received a silver bucket for our bones. The wings were cooked nicely, with juicy interiors and flavorful glazes outside.
Next, I had the Cider Braised Pork Belly Sliders. I enjoyed the meat immensely. Sometimes pork belly is simply too rich for me. I’ve ordered it elsewhere where the chef wanted to emphasize the fattiness of the cut and made it a malleable gooey slab. This pork belly, however, struck the perfect balance between decadent and tender. The meat to bun ratio worked well and the slider format prevented the pork belly from feeling too overpowering. The sliders were finished with a smoked apple chutney and a jicama slaw. Hints of cinnamon and other spices complemented the pork belly and reminded me of fall. The slaw added crunch to each bite.
My dining companions raved about the Black Bean Chipotle Burger. It came with the delicious Sweet Potato Hummus we enjoyed earlier along with caramelized Vidalia onions, lettuce, and tomato. Though a vegetarian option, my carnivorous friends could not get enough.
While the team does dream of a day when they might have multiple Blind Rhinos, (or a “crash” as Casey Dohme pointed out to me is the term for a herd of rhinos), they are enthusiastic about the opportunity in front of them. “Either way, the focus is this location right now, and working hard to deliver a great product to our guests,” says Dohme. “If expansion and growth happen, we'll welcome it, and be ready for it.”
15 N Main St. - South Norwalk, CT 06854