What Norwalk needs is a good French restaurant. We’ve lived too long in a Gallic desert without a ready source for beef bourguignon, steak frites, house-made paté, and bouillabaisse.
The surrounding towns enjoy French food: Rive Bistro in Westport; Luc’s Cafe, Sucre Sale, and the elegant Bernards in Ridgefield; Chez Vous Bistro in Stamford, and even more in Greenwich. But what about Norwalk?
The drought may have ended.
Chef Roland Olah has opened Bruxelles Brasserie in South Norwalk at the former address of Barcelona on North Main Street. But, you may ask, isn’t Bruxelles (or Brussels as it is more commonly spelled) in Belgium? The country is a lot like France — elegant, sophisticated, and food loving — with an emphasis on mussels, chocolate, and some very good beer. That’s close enough for me.
“I don’t want to be boxed in,” Olah told me. “Don’t call it a French restaurant.” He wants to reach across Europe, maybe with an Osso Bucco or a veal Milanese. And there will always be Hungarian goulash. “I want to cook what I feel and do my best,” he said with a confident smile. Still, he’s expert at the French repertoire.
Chef Olah trained in Europe but was the chef at the successful French restaurant Martel in Fairfield for over eight years. An excellent reference. What you also need to know is that Olah is originally from Budapest, which explains the goulash on the menu. (Try it!)
After a year with Daniel Boulud in New York and the stint at Martel, Olah has an excellent command of cooking techniques and the food styles of Europe.
Opening a restaurant is not for the faint of heart. Planning began 18 months ago. Olah left his job six months before opening and began paying rent on his new, empty space. With a business partner, designer, and restaurant consultant, he has put together an attractive restaurant, a well-trained service staff, and a tight-knit kitchen brigade.
We kept seeing the sign for Bruxelles through the fall, but didn’t know it was up
and running until we happened by in mid-December — their first week open. We were greeted warmly by the staff who were amazingly well-prepared, considering it was just day seven of operations. Belgian beer for me, a French Pinot Noir for Marsha. There’s an excellent Eurocentric wine list and a good craft cocktails program too.
Chef Olah is working with his longtime collaborators Sous Chef Zoltan Kovacs and Pastry Chef Reka Csernos. They’re committed to quality food from a scratch kitchen. During his tenure with Boulud, he learned to keep his recipes simple, use quality ingredients, and make every flavor earn its place on the plate.
Marsha relished a cup of the goulash ($9) to start, a spicy stock with tender chunks of beef. I ordered the Belgian croquettes (11), delicious crunchy nuggets filled with ham and cheese.
Seared salmon (27) with sunchoke purée, braised artichoke, fennel, arugula, fried caper and lemon oil was perfectly cooked and well-flavored. I couldn’t resist the Belgian favorite: mussels steamed in ale with julienne vegetables. They came with those crispy twice-cooked Belgian-style fries and a chunk of baguette.
Olah runs a scratch-kitchen with beef, chicken, and veal stocks slow-simmered from bones and vegetables. Patés and confits are made on site. He even makes his own mayonnaise. “Buy good ingredients and treat then well,” is his motto.
A classic Sachertorte transported us to a window table at the Hotel Sacher in Vienna. This pastry-shop standby was moist and chocolaty with tart jam in the layers and a silky ganache on top.
The bar is straight ahead as you enter, with high-top seating along the wall. To the left is a comfortable dining space with a view out to the street and a window into the kitchen. Whimsical avian wallpaper faces a brick wall hung with French posters. Vintage photos add to the eclectic vibe.
“Gin is hot right now in Europe,” bar manager Angela Gregan told me. She has put together a selection of craft gins and natural-flavor tonics to bring “gin bowls” to SoNo. Try the Smashing Blackbirds: Glendalough wild botanical gin (Ireland) and muddled blackberries, topped with Fever-Tree lemon tonic, fresh blackberries, and raspberries.
Open just a little over a month now, Bruxelles is drawing a good dinner crowd just by word of mouth. They’ve added Friday and Saturday lunch and a tempting brunch menu on Sunday featuring eggs, crêpes, and, of course, Belgian waffles (10).
Restaurants are complicated organisms with lots of moving parts. It takes a while to work the kinks out and for things to settle down. Menus are changed and adjusted based on popularity, production, and price while the staff finds their groove. This all takes time, but Bruxelles is off to a good start. I’m rooting for a long run.
Frank Whitman can be reached at NotBreadAloneFW@gmail.com.