When the Blind Rhino opened in South Norwalk in 2015 it made waves both as the first dedicated sports bar in a nightlife-intensive district which was somehow devoid of one, and for making quality food and drink the focus, rather than an afterthought to bats and balls. Do they have beer and wings? Yep, but their beers are two dozen taps' worth of Connecticut focused craft, and their wings come with flavors like Togarashi dry rub and won multiple medals at the last year's National Buffalo Wing Festival in Buffalo, NY. Is there such a thing as a gastro sports bar? Yes, actually, there are two - and you can now find the second one just over the Fairfield town line in the Black Rock neighborhood of Bridgeport.
Owners Matt Bacco, Casey Dohme, and Jamie Pantanella met during their mutual time together at The Ginger Man and Cask Republic restaurants, spread between Manhattan and New Haven. The group learned a great deal about the market for a spot which could pair excellent local and international beers with chef-inspired appetizers and entrees, but saw a hole in the scene for people who wanted to have both while watching a game.
The first Blind Rhino location has become an anchor - drawing consistent crowds in frenetic South Norwalk, where restaurants regularly open and close within a matter of months. The formula works, and the trio decided to purchase a property at 3425 Fairfield Avenue in Bridgeport, just across Ash Creek from Fairfield, and next door to Aspetuck Brew Lab. CTBites made an early visit to the Rhino on the first day they were open to bring you this first look.
The first impression when you see Blind Rhino Black Rock is: these guys don't do anything small. Walk into the Rhino and the bar opens around you. Stools ring high top tables which are surrounded above by 36 televisions throughout the bar, ensuring every sport, match, and race you came there to watch can be fit into the area you choose. Dartboards flank the main bar at the back, which hosts a fine whiskey and tequila heavy bottle selection, with cocktails designed by bartender Meg Gruse of Tigin. Two dozen taps run the length facing you, with 20 of them rotating, and four reserved full time for local Connecticut breweries including Aspetuck Brew Lab, Counterweight, New England Brewing Company, Tribus, and Half Full. A dining area winds away from the bar into a separate room.
The bar is fronted by a patio which overlooks the Avenue and faces the Brew Lab, where a work by Rhino's interior artist, Jackson, is painted onto the shutter, stating for the record that "Beer Is Life." Rhino's patio adds a further 50 to the interior's 100 person capacity, and visitors can grab seats at tables inside a space fenced off from the outside world, where trees hang over the bar's very own bocce court. The games don't have to stop just because you want to enjoy a drink al fresco.
Our review of the setting complete, it's time to get down to the food, starting with some apps. The Blind Rhino's wings arrive in six, twelve, or thirty racks in about a dozen flavors, and we went for the garlic Parmesan, along with the medal-winning spicy Buffalo and Togarashi Brown Sugar varieties. The first is fairly self explanatory, but the Togarashi seven spice is a sweet and savory experience very complimentary to the well done, and a significant departure from the usual flavors available at a sports bar. Spicy Buffalo takes Rhino's traditional hot sauce and blends it with a dash of their maximum-attack "YOU WON'T" habanero and ghost chili sauce. It may sound like a dare, but the Spicy Buffalo stays below the level where the wings simply taste like burning, and deliver a buttery pepper flavor to the meaty wings just hot enough to pop a few beads of sweat. These are the wings which won a silver at the National Buffalo Wing competition, and a gold medal at the Best of Westchester wing competition.
Elsewhere in apps is the Buffalo cauliflower drizzled with sauce, but what made these increasingly ubiquitous bites better than usual was the addition of a cornmeal batter which added crunch to the softer cruciform veggie. Meat eaters should keep an eye out for the Blind Rhino favorite Philly cheesesteak egg rolls, filled with grilled steak, mushrooms, American and Provolone cheeses, and served with a roasted poblano pepper cheese sauce.
Where Rhino separates itself from the sports bar competition is with dishes like egglant meatballs half submerged in marinara, with melted mozzarella and smoked gouda chunks, surrounding a tiny island of sliced black truffles. These were, in a word: delicious. Close one eye, finish your drink, and maybe congratulate yourself on making a healthy(?) decision. Still skeptical? Ok, fine - how about another option from the Black Rock-specific menu: grilled sliced octopus, with avocado, and a drizzle of truffle enchilada sauce, which is also available as a wing flavor. Getting closer? Perhaps chef Angel Rodriguez can interest you in his fried jumbo shrimp tacos, wrapped in Bibb lettuce over jicama mango slaw, with a soy ginger glaze? Would you like that? You should definitely get that, yes.
How abut to drink? Beer options range everywhere from a pint can of Narragansett, to NEBCo Supernaut IPA, and Aspetuck Blackberry Bramble sour, but we started with a Mr. Pink (seen above): a blend of hibiscus infused Uncle Val's gin, fresh lemon juice, honey, and orange bitters. Sweet and tart, but not overly so on either, and with a detectable alcohol punch, it struck a balance worthy of both respect and attention. The Coco Loco - with rooibos, cacao, vanilla, and marigold petal-infused tequila, shaken with cream of coconut and orange cream citrate, reminded us of a particularly stellar batch ofcoquito. The mango margarita which won the 2018 cinco de Mayo competition in east Norwalk is on the menu, but the most refreshing drink by far was Not Yo Mama's Lemonade, sparkling over ice, with Tito's, lemon juice, and strawberry puree. Clean and light, the alcohol has a tendency to hide in the cocktail, which would disappear at an alarming rate if you didn't find yourself so suddenly immunized to alarm.
Arrive hungry and find yourself in need of something more substantial? Rhino has you covered with larger entrees, including burgers like the Bourbon BBQ, made from a house-ground blend of 80/20 chuck and brisket. This is then topped with smoked mozzarella, fried onions, maple bacon, and a bourbon BBQ glaze. The burger is substantial, the blend is rich, meaty, and part of a deep mix with the smokey cheese, bacon and glaze. The fried onions were excellent on their own, but as a topping the fried batter was just a bit too much, and masked the burger after so much thought and care had evidently been put into the meat. Overall it was a head above burgers at most sports bars, and the accompanying hand cut fries were frankly dangerous. Have to save some room for another beer - after all, it's only the second inning, and there's a lot of ball left to play.
The Blind Rhino, 3425 Fairfield Ave., Bridgeport; theblindrhino.com; 203 362 5001
[Photography by Andrew Dominick]