The new dinner menu at Aux Délices puts finesse on display
Mary Kate Hogan
Since Debra Ponzek left the New York restaurant scene in the nineties to open Aux Délices specialty markets, Fairfield County residents have been relishing her elegant take-home meals, not to mention the catered party fare and light bites for breakfast and lunch. Now Westporters can savor the same gourmet-to-go fare with the opening of the market on the Post Road. But the Westport location offers something totally new for Aux Délices: a sit-down French bistro with a full restaurant menu and brief but well-edited wine list. Before eating here, I imagined this was just an extension of the market, perhaps the shop stayed open later and had a few tables for customers who wanted to linger and enjoy the prepared foods on the premises. Not so. It’s the real deal—and the best meal I’ve had in months.
Though you enter the bistro through the market, once inside the restaurant space, cloaked in dark-red drapes and understated French-country décor, you feel as though you’ve stumbled upon a cozy Parisian cafe. Interior drapes separate the bistro from the market, creating added privacy in the dining room. With a carved-wood chandelier, reclaimed wood paneling on the walls and banquette seating along the entire back wall, the rustic-chic restaurant is soothing and romantic, though tables are set fairly close together. On a Friday night, the atmosphere was relaxing, with French music and some Sinatra in the background and no need to shout to carry on a conversation.
Our chat turned to food, with the Moroccan Tuna Tartare appetizer commanding our attention. It’s a palate-pleasing alternative to the typical tartare, layered with a saffron couscous and green olives and topped with crispy papadum chips (love these!) and finished in a mildly spicy harissa sauce. The spiciness didn’t overwhelm the dish and took a moment to develop, so you could enjoy all of the flavors. Another appetizer that reveals Chef Lisa Varnberg’s fresh take on French classics is the Poached Organic Egg, which is served over celery root puree with sausage and, less expected, edamame. A kale and frisée salad with poached pears and Roquefort is completed with a Cabernet reduction. “This vinaigrette is amazing,” remarked one of our dinner companions, who’s also a chef. Already wowed by the starters, I turned to the very traditional Chicken Liver Mousse and had trouble holding back on this fabulous velvety spread, served with cornichons, grilled bread and fruity jam. Julia Child would approve.
I could live on that mousse, but we were soon indulging in mains, selected with input from the waitress who checked in regularly to ensure that were happy throughout the evening. The roasted cod was wonderfully moist and prepared in a white wine sauce with leeks, garlic and lush mashed potatoes; this entrée is fairly rich for fish. The heartiest dish we tried is the stuffed breast of veal paired with melted provolone cheese, wheatberry risotto and kale, so flavorful and substantial. Steak frites with brandy demiglaze and roasted garlic aioli was precisely cooked, and we were all reaching for seconds of the truffle Parmesan fries. Why order pasta from a French-influenced menu? The Feddolini di Abbruzzi intrigued us. The chef mingles a micro-thin spaghetti (fedelini) with plum tomatoes and fennel, garlic bread crumbs and chili, adding kick to the broth-like sauce—a zingy mix that paired well with the delicate pasta. Comfort foods anchor the menu too, with a bistro burger topped with caramelized onion, roasted wild mushrooms and Gruyère; and a homemade gnocchi dressed up with mild mushroom ragout, shallots and Parmesan.
Dessert choices are more straightforward, with apple tarte, crème brûlée, a sundae and profiteroles among the temptations. Aux Délices has a reputation for stellar sweets and the dense, slightly sticky gingerbread cake lived up to expectations, with extra intensity from the pieces of candied ginger in the fresh whipped cream. A homestyle chocolate cake paired with mint-chip ice cream was also good, though not as much of a hit as the gingerbread.
Westport may be a latecomer to the Aux Délices party, but being the first to welcome its bistro, we were lucky for the wait.