Three New(ish) Restaurants that are Here To Stay

By Frank Whitman

Lately we haven’t been eating out much. Even so, we’ve recently enjoyed three stand-out meals at restaurants that are new-ish to the local scene.

Cheese and Crackers

As I’ve said before, you have to be crazy to open a restaurant. Costs are high, staff is scarce, the dining public fickle and any owner has to be a management magician to get all the many moving parts to mesh. Thankfully the rewards of success outweigh the risks of failure. I’m grateful to the entrepreneurs who give it a shot.  These three are getting it right. 

Greer Southern Table landed with a splash in downtown Norwalk last year. Greer Fredericks has been filling the niche for Southern food in central Fairfield county for decades: first at Mama’s Boy in SoNo across from the Maritime Center, then at Peaches on Wall Street, and now just around the corner opposite the popular BANC House restaurant. 

The bright space lit by high windows is a new location for a restaurant. Beautifully re-imagined, any

Shrimp and Grits

vestiges of Kiddytown or My Three Sons have been replaced by a contemporary Southern vibe. 

The menu (supper, not dinner) features Southern Tapas, and Southern Specialties, (Buttermilk Fried Chicken for one) along with down-south accented grain bowls, salads and sandwiches. It’s all too tempting. Shrimp and Grits ($29), Gumbo Ya Ya ($24) and the Fried Chicken ($29) are classics not to be missed.  

I couldn’t resist the Low and Slow Brisket Bowl ($28). Fork tender braised brisket, just fatty enough, came with a pitcher of pour-your-own potlikker brisket gravy, but it was the rest of the bowl that really impressed: a colorful, flavor-packed array of corn maque choux, jalapeño-peach slaw, pickled jalapeño, bread and butter pickles and fresh spinach arranged around a scoop of dirty rice.  

WaWa’s Banana Pudding

I could eat just from the starters list, but for the table the best bet is Cheese and Crackers ($13): a crock each of authentic pimento cheese and Greer’s own “Highbrow” spread, with herbed crostini, pickled crudité, and that Southern staple, Ritz Crackers.  Three of us could not polish off the generous portion. 

Desserts are tempting, but there’s only one way to finish a proper Southern meal – WaWa’s Double Banana Pudding ($10) with a foundation of the de rigueur Nilla Wafers topped with silken pudding, fresh and caramelized bananas, and whipped cream.

Wines on the brief list are well chosen. Bourbon is mentioned frequently on the creative cocktail list.  Service is Southern-style friendly.  

Basso Restaurant

In Westport, the Basso Restaurant and Wine Bar has comfortably settled into its (relatively) new digs. Chef Renato Donzelli founded the original Basso in a modest Norwalk storefront. Starting slow in 2007 with BYOB and creative Italian-Argentinian cooking, Donzelli built a loyal following. 

Restaurants, particularly highly personal ones like Basso, don’t usually travel well. During the pandemic, after spotting his dream location, Donzelli took the brave step of moving to Westport where he’s now serving both old friends and new customers. 

Here the tapas are Spanish and the list is long and tempting. Burrata Stuffed Eggplant ($15) and Mushrooms ($10) sautéed with olive oil, garlic, Jerez vinegar and parsley were popular at our table. 

Stuffed Eggplant

Cocas (a sort of Tapas pizza) come hot and bubbling from the two-story copper-clad pizza oven. Paella for two, seafood or vegetarian, is a specialty. There is pasta and seafood across the menu in equal measure.

Crunchy unripe-plantain “crumbs” (who knew?) coated the Alaskan Halibut ($41).  The fillets with their crunchy crust came atop fresh avocado and red cabbage agro dolce.  Two of us had the Tuscan Grilled Chicken under a Brick ($34), marinated with rosemary and lemon and cooked to crisp-skinned perfection. You can see how Donzelli’s two cultures dance together on the menu.  “Welcome to Belly Bliss,” is the menu’s salutation.  

Wines play an important role.  We shared a bottle of refreshing Alvarinho and then a glass of Sangiovese from the Donzelli family vineyard in Tuscany.  

I wanted to try the Churros ($15) with Belgian chocolate dipping sauce, but couldn’t find any partners for the six pieces. We settled on a rich Tiramisu ($15) and four spoons. 

In a remake of a long standing fine-dining location in Ridgefield, The Benjamin is continuing the legacy of Bernards and the Inn at Ridgefield. The newest of my trio of new-ish establishments, it’s imagined and created by the experienced owners of Norwalk’s BJ Ryan group in partnership with Rob Moss of the always-excellent Washington Prime in SoNo. 

The venerable building has been re-done in contemporary grays for a chic and soothing ambiance.  Colorful portraits of Benjamin Franklin are seen here and there. Franklin, the restaurant’s namesake, was as American as it gets but also a fan of France, much like the menu.

The buzz on dinner is all good, but so far we’ve only made it to Brunch.  We began with fresh fruit and croissants washed down with sparkling rosé. My generous portion of Vanilla Custard Brioche French Toast ($25) disappeared in a trice.  The garnishes of fig compote, chantilly cream, maple syrup and thick-cut bacon made each bite its own taste adventure.  Marsha’s Eggs Benedict ($26) was the classic preparation, flawlessly executed. 

Next time, I’m saving room for the Rhubarb Cheesecake ($15) if it’s still in season. 

It’s not good luck that these three meals all lodged in my food memory – they were creative, flavorful and well-presented.  It takes a while for a new restaurant to find its footing – for all the gears to mesh into a successful experience.  These places have deliciously found their mojo.

French Toast at The Benjamin