Several years ago, my friend and I looked into buying a bar. The space had been a sort of crusty old dive for years, stopping just short of "biker bar," but had since closed and remained so for a few trips around the Sun. Someone else picked it up by the time we got our act together, and it was just as well, because that left us able to spend many hours and ducats there - meeting neighbors, sinking pints, and possibly singing "Werewolves of London" from the loft until the other patrons consented to do the "Awoooo" part - instead of worrying about if the night's special was selling and how many soda logs we'd ordered. Friends were made in this place. News, gossip, and phone numbers were exchanged, and local business and political deals were done. Another place or two were probably the town bars, but this was the local pub.
The importance of the "publick house" may seem as anachronistic as its spelling now - we have quintillions of entertainment options accessible from within our homes, we needn't gather to learn the news, and there's always Match.com if we need a date - but we remain pack animals, however evolved. We need to rub shoulders, and we should mix with our community. We need to be social.
Darien Social is a pub. It's a gathering spot in a central location within town (at the corner of the Post Rd. and Tokeneke, on the corner opposite the Darien train station) where people can have drinks, get some food, and share in human fellowship. The location, however, allows it to be a bit more than that.
"I wanted to have an everyday place for lunch and dinners: burgers, pizza, etc., but the location in Darien allows us to go and do things above and beyond that," said executive chef Nick Bilello (Burger Bar, Ocean Drive) pointing to the pan-seared foie gras with kumquat/orange jam and almond milk on our plates - a personal favorite of his.
"Above and beyond" includes bits like a wood fired pizza oven, and 31 draft beers. The oven gives forth the house made flatbread, pizzas like the mozzarella/roasted tomatoes/bacon jam combo I first had, and the porcini mushroom/Bridges Abbey cheese affair which arrived with my first flight of beers. The pizzas are done in the Stamford style with an ultra-thin and crispy, not chewy, crust, and the wooden flight carried Radeberger and Brooklyn pilsners (polar opposite beers within the same style), Lagunitas IPA (prototypical American IPA) and Ommegang Abbey (one of the best Belgian beers period, but made in New York). This, then, is not your local "pitchers and sliders" kind of tavern. [Let me know in the comments if you'd like my impressions of those beers, and I'll fill them in a bit more.]
We began with a selection of Vermont farmstead cheeses and jams. Cloud 9 is a soft, cow milk cheese from Woodcock Farms. This new, mild cheese was paired with assertive sour cherry jam, which I definitely enjoyed. The second was a two year old, quite sharp, cheddar, slightly overpowered by a habanero jam. I thought this combo would be evened out if incorporated into what would doubtlessly become a sublime grilled cheese sandwich. Third in the order was Gore-Dawn-Zola by the Boucher Family Farm, a winner of the Cheese Reporter Trophy at the British Empire Cheese Show, and an ACS Blue-Ribbon winner. This one was excellent as you'd imagine, and very cow-y, like sniffing a heifer. The super-tangy gorgonzola-style cheese was smoothed with a drizzle of chestnut-infused honey.
Next was nicely charred shrimp with grits and sausage gravy and a small, crispy polenta cake. That last addition
was odd, but it worked. Scallops were served over celery salad and roasted tomatoes with the aforementioned bacon jam, which is made with ingredients including bacon, onions, garlic, apple cider and reduced coffee. I'm a fan. This course was served with a Millbrandt vineyards chardonnay with a bit of an acidic nose, but a more buttery finish.
An enjoyable Big Vine pinot noir was poured as plates of open faced pork belly sliders (with arugula and a very nice tomato aioli) arrived next to pork spareribs over slaw, treated to a smokey rub and a chipotle glaze which added a wonderful heat to the proceedings. The pork in the above came from the same farm in Vermont as one of the cheeses, but Bilello mentioned the menu will become increasingly Connecticut-based as the spring and summer progress. The seared foie gras from paragraph four was next, followed closely by Darien Social's signature Swedish meatballs with foie gras gravy and cranberry jam: a beautiful pairing.
One just doesn't see food like this on pub menus. Case in point: wild salmon with Swiss chard, lemon fraiche, and a mustard seed vinaigrette that you'll want to put on everything, all the time. Have you seen that comic from The Oatmeal about sriracha? It's kind of like that. The shortribs one plate over were served inside small mason jars over a root vegetable hash (parsnips, carrots, beets), and braised with port, pistachio, parsley and lemon, making for some seriously aromatic, flavorful beef. A few cookies with sides of granola milk and a vanilla pot de creme finished off the banquet.
Darien Social is fairly large, and well lit for a pub. I suspect they can probably remove the large front windows when the summer starts to stretch its legs, but there's currently a patio off the back dining room with a wood-burning fireplace for those seeking a sky view. The full bar is nearly as stocked as the beer list, and the cocktails look enticing, but it's just exciting to have a hangout like this in Darien with a real dedication to craft beers and good food. Elbow room can sometimes be limited despite the sizable space, but that's all part of being sociable.
Darien Social 10 Center Street, Darien CT 203.614.8183
Photography courtesy of Thomas McGovern Photography