When the River Cat shuttered its doors in March, after 12 years on Rowayton’s main drag, the closure of the beloved neighborhood restaurant and bar left a gaping hole in Rowayton’s dining and social scene.
So when I returned to check out the recently launched SAILS, a new American bistro with a spiffed up nautical vibe, I wasn’t surprised that the highly polished teak bar was three-deep with old-timers and new fans, making themselves right at home in a familiar, yet completely transformed haunt.
Where the River Cat was dark and had grown a tad tired from years of hard partying, SAILs is bright, modern and shipshape, sporting a fresh blue-and- white palette and nautical theme that reflects Rowayton’s deep ties to the sailing community and waterfront just steps from the restaurant’s front door.
In the main dining room, the ceiling is draped with authentic canvas boat sails. The walls are softly lit by maritime pendant lights and peppered with a nautical-inspired décor — from teak woodwork and chrome railings that make you feel like you’re dining aboard a yacht — to simple yachting prints by renowned photographer Michael Kahn.
Ceruzzi, the restaurant group that owns and operates Manhattan’s Bottega del Vino, Kenmare and Sfoglia, completely transformed the ambience, yet treaded lightly when it came to tinkering with the staff. When Ceruzzi brass heard about the town’s loyalty to the River Cat’s crew, they sagely brought back Executive Chef Nathan Kramer, General Manager Terry McSpedon, Bartender Tim Walsh and many of the River Cat’s popular longtime staffers.
McSpedon, an affable restaurant vet who was with the River Cat when it first opened, has an uncanny read on his clientele. All evening, he deftly navigates the packed dining room, checking on tables, directing waiters and chitchatting with regulars.
To a gal who encounters her fair share of indifferent twentysomething “managers” snapping gum and texting, it’s a refreshing change to see an adult captain adroitly steering this ship. (It didn’t hurt that McSpedon steered us to a coveted a seat by the crackling fireplace when I mention it’s my husband’s birthday.
As the ambience has matured, so has the menu. Chef Kramer, who was the executive chef at the River Cat for four years, designed the menu as a study in simplicity, with a well-edited selection of appetizers, soups, salads, burgers as well as gourmet seafood, meat and pasta entrees — and no specials in sight. Instead, the menu will change with the seasons, with winter’s hearty fare being replaced by lighter choices and more fresh seafood and farmers’ market selections in spring and summer.
Though his dishes are simple, Kramer elevates each by using superior fresh and seasonal ingredients. In many cases, his tempting accompaniments threaten to upstage the main event. The Roasted Marinated Pork Chop, for instance, is all but eclipsed by the butternut squash bread pudding, pecan butter and shaved Brussels sprouts and bacon in a cider reduction.
Other menu standouts include Housemade Meatball Sliders on Brioche, Steamed P.E.I Mussels with chorizo, apples, pumpkin cream, Housemade Lobster Ravioli, and an array of swimmingly fresh seafood entrees, like the Cedar Planked Sockeye Salmon and Rosemary (with red rice, toasted pecans, sun-dried apricots, scallions, Blood Orange butter) & Butter-Basted Chilean Sea Bass (with baby artichokes, Great Northern white beans, roasted tomatoes and mushroom broth).
For the little ones, there’s gourmet mac & cheese, freshly prepared grilled burgers, organic all-beef hot dogs and thin-crust pizzas, though the crowd is decidedly grown up after 7:30 p.m., when both the bar and dining room emit a boisterous, reunion-like vibe. My advice: Go early if you’ve got small people in tow.
We arrive at primetime on a recent Wednesday night, and it’s standing-room only at the door (reservations are the call here). Our first impression is good. The chewy house Ciabatta and excellent Extra Virgin Olive Oil are the real deal. We peruse the menu and take in the chummy Rowayton scene, complete with a colorful bon vivant sporting an ascot, navy blazer and red cords who is chatting up his attractive young neighbors.
For starters, we decide on the savory Braised Short Rib Flatbread with wild mushrooms, Fontina, caramelized onions and fall braising greens, a dish perfect for sharing. Our second starter, a cool and bracing Tuna Tartar, expertly layered with cucumbers, avocado and a piquant chili dressing, is the right counterpoint to the short rib pizzette. It’s served with a side of crunchy, diet-busting House-made potato chips for scooping — a brilliant pairing.
For our entrees, we split the Grilled Marinated Skirt Steak, a hearty portion of perfectly seasoned medium-rare steak in a black peppercorn cognac sauce, served with a hefty side of addictive truffle fries. In between bites of skirt steak, we make short work of the savory House-Made Lobster Ravioli with artichokes, Andouille sausage and lobster in a light and sweet Vermouth cream sauce.
Along with our first-rate food, we enjoy several very respectable wines by the glass, and are pleasantly surprised with the selection of good bottles for under $30. Overall, the menu is reasonably priced, with plenty of novel choices for a low-key weeknight meal. McSpedon says he wants people to feel like the restaurant is a “home away from home,” a place to bring the “Times” and relax on Sunday in the bar, a place to take the kids for an early bite or a venue for live music and cocktails on the weekends. And, naturally, if you’re in the mood to celebrate or splurge, you can manage that nicely here.
For dessert, temptations include the Warm Chocolate Ooze Cake, served with a small side of Vanilla Milk Shake, The Salty Turtle, which features vanilla ice cream, drizzled with chocolate and caramel sauces, topped with salty cashews, The SAILS Root Beer Float or rich Butterscotch Pudding.
We dive into the Salty Turtle and sail back off to our home port of Westport, happy to know that, like a Phoenix, SAILS has risen from the ashes of the River Cat, and is well on its way to reclaiming its former status as the community’s go-to gathering spot.
SAILS American Grill is open daily for lunch (11:30 am - 2:30 pm) and dinner (5:30 - 10:30 pm), and features a special Brunch Menu on Sunday. SAILS is located at 148 Rowayton Ave. and offers al fresco dining and great people-watching on the street-front patio starting in the spring. Reservations are recommended for dinner. Live music on weekends starting Jan. 1, 2011. For more information, visit www.sailsamericangrill.com or call 203-853-SAIL.