For as long as I can remember, Roget Martin presided over Voila! in Fairfield, a jam-packed French bistro housed in a homey, red shingled building across from the Town Green. Then, one day, Voila! had disappeared and, in it’s place stood the very fine Osianna, an upscale Mediterranean newcomer and a worthy replacement.
Still, I wondered what had happened to the affable and ruddy-cheeked Roget, who, as maître d’, had lovingly presided over Voila!, sharing jokes and stories and dispensing large pours of Beaujolais to throngs of happy repeat diners.
Imagine my surprise when a friend introduced me to Bon Appétit Café, a charming yet unassuming French café, tucked into the Stop and Shop plaza in the heart of Wilton. Though Roget was nowhere in sight when I entered, his fingerprints were all over the place. Though the décor and vibe were night and day from Voila! to Bon Appetit, the food and service were a dead giveaway.
Whereas Voila! was known for its rollicking Saturday night scene and standing-only room crowds, Bon Appetit is first and foremost a casual neighborhood lunch and dinner spot, popular for both dining in and takeout.
Ladies who lunch have put it on the map, and the conversation reaches it’s zenith at about 12:30 p.m. when all the tables are full of soccer moms sporting preppy hunting jackets or jeans and blazers. Edith Piaf, who belts out French love ballads from hidden speakers, is all but drowned out by the chatter.
The décor here is spare and unfussy — French movie posters line the saffron walls and multicolored linens dress the tables. You’ll not only have a view of the kitchen, you’re practically sitting in it. At times, you’ll smell your steak being prepared before it arrives at your table. Usually a good thing, although there are times when you head home reeking of smoke or garlic.
Don’t let the cozy quarters and the chatty, casual ambience fool you. The food here is as good as one would expect from a trio of Gallic maestros, including Roger Martin and chef Dominique Arrighi, formerly of Voila! in Fairfield, where it took months to get a Saturday night reservation. In opening Bon Appetit, the duo was joined by chef Lionel Arnal. Perhaps having two chefs is how they can turn out so many inventive daily specials.
In addition to the menu of French classics like Croque Monsieur and Escargots, fall-off-the-bone Duck Leg Confit and Filet Mignon Bearnaise, the day’s menus are upstaged by the numerous creative Blackboard Specials.
At today’s lunch outing, there were five soups that I can remember— Onion, Butternut Squash, Petit Bouillabaisse, Mushroom and one with broccoli rape and clams, a novel combination yet one that didn’t ring my chimes.
I tend to judge a bistro by the way it tackles the classics and Bon Appetit’s French Onion soup is everything I expected it to be — slow-cooked, rich and savory, topped with caramelized Gruyere and served with sliced baguette for dunking. The servers bring all entrees piping hot, and manage to be solicitous without hovering.
On my first visit, I swooned over the Pan Bagnat, which takes most of the ingredients from a traditional Nicoise salad and kicks them up a notch by sandwiching them between chewy Ciabatta bread and topping with a pungent vinaigrette. A friend ordered a Burger au Poivre. Big, juicy, studded with peppercorns and full of flavor.
Today, with the sun warming the earth and the ground showing signs of spring, our group opted for some of the lighter options.
Each of our four entrées was as beautifully prepared as it was tasty. The Curried Chicken Salad (seen above) was topped with tropical fruits — grapefruit and orange supremes, diced mango and papaya, and apple slices, served over frisee.
A friend’s Salad de Chevre consisted of a bed of arugula greens topped with julienned apples, roasted red peppers, caramelized walnuts and drizzled with a fresh lemon-olive oil dressing. The kicker was the goat cheese-wrapped prosciutto bites (so tasty I’m going to replicate them the next time I need a quick party hors d’oeuvre). The last of the salads was the traditional Salade Nicoise (a generous portion of white tuna, accompanied by boiled eggs and potatoes, haricots verts, Nicoise olives) topped with a garlicky vinaigrette).
Instead of going the salad route, I opted for the sautéed shrimps in a sauce of fresh ginger, coconut milk, vanilla bean and cream. Though the shrimp were delicious, the sauce was a little heavy for my taste. Another friend opted for the sautéed shrimps with asparagus, served with a light citrus vinaigrette and a medley of sliced fruits (that’s what I should have ordered; my bad!) The excellent stuffed Provencal tomato and perfectly roasted potatoes that accompanied my dish, however, were sweet, oven-roasted and prepared to perfection. No matter the entrée, you’ll get a memorable medley of sides. Just wish the portions were bigger!
At dinner, the chefs pull out all the stops. As the prices rise, so does the level of sophistication and the portions. From starters like Escargots a la Bourguignone to Assiette de Saumon Fume (smoked salmon pate) to the heavenly Cuisse de Canarde Confit (duck leg confit) to Filet Mignon Bernaise, dinner is heavier, loftier, more…Voila! You will not find any fish on their printed menu because the chefs select only the freshest local fish each day to feature on the blackboard.
Here, wines are available, but folks “in the know” tote their own favorites and pay a corkage fee.
The prices at lunch are all reasonable $8-$9 for sandwiches, $9-13 for salads. The highest priced lunch entrees are $14, but then you’re getting Steak a Poivre or Steak Gorgonzola, an excellent piece of fish or sautéed shrimp. At dinner, you’re looking at starters from $5-$11 and entrees from $18 for chicken to $26-$28 for fish, steaks and duck.
I don’t know how, but I almost forgot to mention the desserts. From the creamy, caramelized Crème Brulee to the stellar, caramelized apple Tarte Tatin to the Trio de Mousse (rich and decadent!), the dessert options are all homemade and above par. Even if you don’t have room, it’s almost a sin to turn down the tempting croissant pudding (like American bread pudding, but tres magnifique!). Order one and share.
The restaurant is “petit,” with fewer than a dozen tables, but the place hops, turning out lunch to about 50 per day and being fully booked for most Friday and Saturday evenings. If you decide to stop into Bon Appetit at the last minute, Monday through Thursday evenings are a good bet, though it doesn’t hurt to give a quick call to check, as there’s no real bar or place to wait.
Though the restaurant finally got a liquor license and serves wine and beer, the deal here is BYO; $12 corkage charge per bottle.
Bon Appetit Café 5 River Road Wilton. 203.563.9002
Open Monday-Saturday for lunch 11-4, and dinner, 5-9; Closed Sunday.
Major credit cards accepted.