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Friday, August 27, 2010

Call It a Night: Dining Out in Fairfield

Call It a Night: Dining Out in Fairfield
By Mike Lauterborn
(For Fairfield Sun front page Aug 26 issue)

As full of activities and goings-on as Fairfield is during the day, the town has a thumping pulse at night as well. But what really attracts people to the area is the host of evening dining experiences one can enjoy, from casual to dressy and everything in between. Here’s just a sampling of Fairfield’s prime time culinary sensations…

Go Casual
An institution in Fairfield, Archie Moore’s at 48 Sanford Street has been catering to the masses since the early 90s. There’s a fuzzy “Cheers”-like vibe here that instantly proclaims neighborhood bar and restaurant.
Perhaps it’s the low-key d├ęcor that pulls in the crowds – ceiling fans, wood beams and paneling, big screen TVs showing sports and tap standards like Sam Adams.
Or maybe it’s the pub-style food, which includes a range of appetizers like chicken fingers, quesadillas and fried calamari; nachos and salad; burgers and wraps; and tasty sandwiches.
Or just maybe it’s the stupendous buffalo wings, voted “Best in Connecticut” and available in quantities from seven to 49 pieces with celery and hearty bleu cheese dressing on the side.
“The wings are just great,” bartender Jim O’Neil says. “And Monday to Friday, they’re half price. During football season, it’s unbelievable how busy we are for take-out. On Super Bowl Sunday, we sold 32,000 wings out of here alone. That’s a lot of chicken!”
Added O’Neil, “Archie’s is not only a place to sit and watch the game, but a family place. The location is perfect… commuters come off the train after work for a beer… and the prices are very reasonable.”
A hungry quintet of teens enjoying a 21-wing appetizer, which they planned to follow with burgers, echoed O’Neil’s thoughts on the chicken delights. Schoolmates Tommy McGrath, 14 (Fairfield), Ben Capasso, 15 (Fairfield), Yohan Kim, 15 (New Haven), Owen Prum, 15 (New Haven) and Ben Kazer, 15 (New Haven) declared collectively, “Wings are our favorite.”
The five, who hadn’t seen each other in a while, claimed that this was “our spot.” Added McGrath, “Sometimes we like to walk over to Dairy Queen and Robek’s after, for dessert.”
Around the corner and up the block, newbie eatery Colony Grill, opened recently at 1520 Post Road, is enjoying similar success with its one-of-a-kind thin-crust pizza. The pizza and the kitchen were modeled on the original Stamford-based Colony Grill, founded in 1935.
Explained one of the four partners, Cody Lee, “We (the collective owners) were Little League teammates in elementary school in Trumbull and won the Little League World Series in 1989. We stayed friends and would meet at the old Colony to talk and dream about opening a restaurant/bar together. We decided to replicate Colony’s formula, got the endorsement of the owners and took painstaking lengths to make sure the food was the same: simple and tasty.”
NHL superstar Chris Drury is one of the other owners and drops in on occasion to say hello to fans and patrons alike. The latter are a mixed set, from families, couples and business people to seniors, Little Leaguers and enjoyers of the original Colony Grill.
A foursome of workmates that had been busy with Congressman Jim Himes’ campaign efforts, relaxed here recently enjoying a large hot oil pie.
“We knew it just opened and thought it would be a good place to hang out,” said Peter Yazbak, 24, from Bridgeport.
“I really like the spicy pizza and relaxed atmosphere,” said Tamara Soraluz, 23, from Greenwich.
“I went to Southern in New Haven, so I know pizza. And this is good pizza!” said Shante Hanks.
While a hot destination for the pizza, Colony’s got a great late night scene as Hostess Caroline Williams, 19, from Easton, was quick to point out. “Nights are crazy here. We’re family friendly to be sure, but there’s a huge bar biz too. We’re open until 1a.m. Monday to Thursday and until 2 on Friday and Saturday.”

Wine & Dine
Located near the train station at 55 Miller Street off the Post Road, 55 Wine Bar and Restaurant has been a popular stop for the past 2 ½ years. Says bartender Kleber Siguenza, 33, from Norwalk, “People come for the atmosphere… and Mario, the owner. He’s a good guy.”
Indeed, the environment is a soothing one with high wooden stools, stone-tiled floors, large windows allowing ambient light, recessed pinspots, a brick back wall and candles along the bartop. And Mario is a friendly caretaker.
But the wines and drink creations are a strong draw as well. “We serve a lot of red and white wines, as well as cocktail creations like the Watermelon Mojito and Mangopolitan,” said Siguenza. Beers on tap include Stella Artois, Palm, Captain Lawrence Pale Ale and Hoegaarden.
Sara Camarro, 31, from Fairfield, who was enjoying a vodka martini and waiting on friends coming off the train, said about 55, “I like it because it’s quiet, the music’s not overpowering, the menu looks good and I could find a seat at the bar!” 
Patrons, primarily ages 25-55, typically come for dinner first, then stay for the bar said Siguenza. They can choose from antipasti dishes like eggplant parm, mussels and oysters, varied fresh salads, house-made pasta and “secondo” dishes that include veal, salmon, sirloin and chicken.
An added plus is live musical entertainment – typically jazz and pop rock – offered on Fridays and Saturdays from 10pm-1a.m.
Since its opening in September 2009, Molto at 1215 Post Road has quickly taken its place as a favorite destination. Designed to effect the feeling of “Italy meets Manhattan in the 50s,” as partner Nick Racanelli described it, the venue features ceramic tiled flooring, projected Fellini films, a 40-foot Carrera marble bar, a funky soundtrack and booths, tables and an outdoor patio to accommodate diners. The appeal is to the 25-60 set, who come from a 20-mile radius to enjoy Molto’s mozzarella varieties, tapas, sandwiches, specialty pizza, pasta, salads, homemade breads and desserts, and reserve wine list.
The Lipper family of Fairfield was on hand one recent evening, enjoying a Romano pizza in the comfort of a private booth. “We’ve been here 20 times since it opened,” said Ari Lipper, 46. “We moved up from New York. Molto has a little more vibe than other restaurants in the area.” Ari’s wife, Joanna, 44, added, “The food is outstanding. Everything we’ve ordered has been great.” With a laugh, Ari chimed in, “If you can tell by my girlish figure, I appreciate food.” 
The Lippers also enjoy coming for brunch, when they “don’t want the scene” or “for a football Sunday to watch the game. It’s nice and mellow then,” said Joanna, helping her daughter, Bari, 10, to another slice of thin-crust goodness.
“Of course, there are those other times when we want and enjoy all the noise and activity. We even double-date here,” concluded Ari.

Dress to Impress
The Gray Goose, opened in mid-July 2010 at 246 Old Post Road in Southport, has been gaining quite a buzz among the well-heeled “beautiful” crowd. Co-owner Tommy Febbraio, 56, described this newcomer as a wine bar with a value-based contemporary menu, with “nothing over $19.95 and leaning to the healthy side.” Patrons can choose from “little plates” that include calamari, yellow fin tuna and spring rolls, grilled flatbread salads, sandwiches and burgers and main plates like salmon, scallops, chicken and rigatoni.
“You can go to Darien, New Canaan, Greenwich and they would charge $30 for meals like our scallops,” Febbraio remarked, drawing a comparison between the Goose’s pricing and that of competitors in this category.
 The design concept here was “old meets new, European cottage feel.” The wood accents and wide-plank flooring came from a 100-year-old barn in Virginia and were blended with a thick granite topped bar, stone fireplaces, custom lighting and candle sconces.
The crowd -- chatty and bubbly hipsters – tends to be locally based, though recent happy hour visitors Pete Johnson, 52, and Ken Bernheim, 34, hailed from New Canaan and Norwalk respectively. Catching a drink after work, Johnson said, “I’d heard good things about the place and have been impressed with the quality and ambiance.” Added Bernheim, “It’s a vibrant crowd… a good mix of people.”   
A French-American bistro and bar opened at 2316 Post Road in early 2009, Martel offers a range of fare for hungry diners. On the inexpensive side, one can enjoy sandwiches like sliced lamb, braised beef and grilled applewood ham & cheese or warm king crab rolls and crusty fried sole for $11-$16. Entrees range from $16-$24 and include everything from Martel meat loaf to lobster risotto and roasted cod.
Mirroring in feel New York’s Balthazar, the venue has an inviting atmosphere with yellow pastel walls, red leather benches trimmed in gold metal studs, weathered wood, stone tiled floors and abstract paintings created by Vermont artist Robyn Whitney Fairclough.
General Manager Eric Sierra, 45, described patrons as hovering in the late 30s-50s age range, who also come to enjoy the stately beveled stone and dark black wood bar in the entry area.
A pair of regulars, Shannon Riley, 43, and Ed Adams, 55, both Fairfielders, said they like Martel for a variety of reasons. Remarked Adams, “We enjoy the atmosphere, people and definitely the food. The staff also makes you feel like friends, greet you by name and make you feel at home. Other customers are friendly and the owner Marty (Levine) is great.” Added Riley, “We love it here. We really do.”

Family Pit Stops
There are a wide number of family dining experiences to enjoy in Fairfield. Two eateries in particular have been receiving kudos and deserve a mention.
Near the center of downtown, Kiraku Japanese Asian Grill, at 1795 Post Road, is one family favorite.
Exclaimed patron Carl Speck, 39, who was seated at the sushi bar one recent evening, “I used to go to Sakura but this is more child-friendly, which was important in terms of dining with my children.”
Menu innovation is another differentiator. Manager Helen Chan, 30, travels into Manhattan once a week to make the rounds of other Asian restaurants and spot new food sensations to incorporate into Kiraku’s menu.
“The owner (Jimmy Pan, 35, from Colchester) originally wanted to do only sushi, but customers began asking for Thai, Malaysian and other Asian styles. So we expanded the menu. There’s a lot of area competition but we feel we have unique, Manhattan-style selections,” said Chan.
The environment here is also an attraction: colorful, warm and custom blue, yellow and red lighting, wood block flooring, pastel peach walls, long benches, dark woods and a sushi bar accommodating eight.
“I usually eat sashimi in Asian eateries but I experiment more here,” said Speck. “The snow white rolls are really nice, prices are very good and service is fast and accommodating.
The Shack Hometown Grill at 2070 Post Road is another winner with the family set. Opened in March 2010 after a 3-month renovation, the venue is described by General Manager/Partner David Cervero, 31, as a “place you can take the family for dinner as well as a place for the adults to return later to catch a band.” (Live music is featured on Fridays and Saturdays from 10-1).
But the true draw of this 4,500-square-foot hometown-style restaurant is the very reasonably priced, casual, American pub food: flat bread pizza, calamari, corn dogs, shakes, shack burgers, sandwiches, salads and burritos.
Patron Samantha Bernstein, 44, of Fairfield, said enthusiastically, “It’s a good family place. My husband and I come with our kids. The waitresses and owners are so nice to them. They let them pour their own drinks and make their own desserts. You can come here with a family of five or six and not break the bank. The Shack is easy, welcoming and fun.”