BBQ an’ Crab at House in Norwalk

Lou Gorfain

Barbecue and Crab.  That may not be a combo found in nature, but the two do live together, albeit on separate sides of the menu, at the new  House of Norwalk, a restaurant packed with flavors and patrons, (The name is an acronym for BBQ an' Crab.) 

B.J. Lawless and Buckley Ryan -- founders of the popular Norwalk pub BJ/Ryans -- believed Southern Connecticut needed a great crab and seafood house. However Northern seafooders have trouble surviving the winter, so BBQ not only winterproofs the menu, it conveniently taps into America's hottest food trend.  The ribs also serve as a sentimental salute to the late Norwalk Rib House, Cogburns, which once occupied the same space and where B.J.and Buckley first met and began hatching their restaurant concepts.   

To invent their own brand of surf and turf, the partners enlisted talented executive chef Leland Avellino and then hit the road.   In the South, the threesome tasted all manner of Q, evaluating temperatures, time, woods, smoke, rubs, and cuts. (Photos of their forages line the dining room walls). They came back and  put a Connecticut Yankee twist on Good Old Boy BBQ: dry rubbed meat cooked low and slow in mists of tangy hickory and sweet apple wood smoke.   

Because the meats are so delicately smoked, Avellino makes sure they don't get lost in the sauce by serving a light bodied dressing that doesn't overpower the subtle hickory and apple notes.  The sauce and rub are bottled for purchase in the restaurant, and the partners are working on wider distribution.

If you're talkin’ Q, you're probably talkin’ ribs. The menu features 2 succulent pork iterations.  St. Louis  ( the sternum bone, cartilage and rib tips removed to create a rectangular-shaped cut) which is brushed out of the smoker. Happily, it is not as heavily sauced as some of the goo Missourians like to slather on their ribs.  They also brush the sweet, glistening Baby Back Rigs, which inspire those familiar fall-off- the- bone, lip-smacking, finger-licking-good hyphenated Qliches 

Smoked Brisket gets a very big play.  Moist and tender, flanked by sides of smokey beans and a clean slaw, the smoked beef receives big kudo's from BBQ aficionados, especially those from Texas. 

But to my palate, the true star of the show is the small boned Denver Rib.  Don't expect pork or beef.  This is smoked Lamb.  The delicate cut is so tender and bursting with flavor, no sauce is applied or needed.  The char, the smoke, the meat meld and then melt in your mouth.  This is lamb on steroids, with not a hint of a gamey taste.

As they imported some of the South to Norwalk, Ryan, Lawless and Avellino also transplanted a bit of Chesapeake Bay to River Street:  blue claw crabs.  In authentic Bawl'mere style, the waiter brings a bucket of steamed crabs dusted with "Inner Harbor" spices and dumps the crustaceans on the table top, with a mallet for cracking the shells,   All that's missing is Cal Ripken.

Steamed Alaskan King Crab is plated unadorned, save for a drawn butter for dipping and a lemon for squeezing.  The Ginger Caramel Snow Crab Clusters come very much adorned, dressed in a gingered glaze, then topped with cilantro and crushed peanuts.  They also serve west coast Dungies, tossed in a roasted garlic sauce.

Avellino has just introduced an app special that shows off his pairing magic – a suite of two diver scallops, sauted in butter, drizzled in balsamic vinegar, offset with a quartered carmalized onion and a touch of wilted spinach, This masterful mélange of contrapuntal textures. tastes and food groups is not to be missed.

As for the “C” in, none of the shellfish is smoked.  But Chef Avellino is experimenting with a smoked lobster tail that may soon make its debut.

It takes some time to wade through the bifurcated menu. I counted more than 80 entries, sides, and apps, not just seafood and BBQ, but everything from mac and cheese to shrimp and grits.  Usually this is a warning sign that a restaurant is trying to be all things to all people, and doing none of them well.  Not true in this kitchen. Only a month old, it may be smoking Southern Connecticut's best BBQ, steaming its freshest shellfish, and serving its tastiest raw bar. There literally is something for everyone, even the kids. House-- a distinctive interpretation of two flavorful and fun American foodscapes. 

16 River Street, Norwalk 203. 853.7926

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