The Darien dining scene heats up with the addition of this gourmet gastro pub
Left: Tasty shrimp with grits, Right: Gourmet bacon cheeseburger
photographs by tom mcgovern
With a creative menu and a focus on fresh seasonal ingredients, Darien’s first gastro pub raises the bar on bar food. It’s one thing to have a new pub in town, a convivial spot to enjoy a fortifying pint and catch up with friends. It’s another to have a watering hole that doubles as a place for a fine meal at an eatery led by a team of seasoned restaurateurs and savvy wine and spirit devotees. Welcome to Darien Social. Warm and welcoming it is, but even with the lighthearted atmosphere, the focal point here is on the serious preparation of good, fresh and locally produced food.
Located in the heart of downtown at the corner of the Post Road and Tokeneke, Darien Social’s big glass doors face the train station, so there’s a good deal of foot traffic headed in this direction after Metro North unloads its nattily dressed passengers. They mingle in two dining rooms. The back space is for quiet conversation; the front room is more boisterous, as it’s opposite the long bar with granite top. However, the bar is separated from the tables and booths by a partition, so this front room is a good place for a spirited meal with the kids. Both rooms have wood-paneled walls, exposed brick, leather banquettes, soft lighting and wide-plank oak floors for a clubby, comfortable atmosphere.
During my visit, our group started with drinks and small plates in the front room. With thirty-one draught beers that pour from taps behind the bar, it’s de rigueur to order a flight. Ours included Radeberger and Brooklyn pilsners and Ommegang Abbey Ale, a fine Belgian brew made in New York. The beverage program at Darien Social is bold: there are stouts, ales and lagers, plus premium scotch and whiskey selections, and a global wine list that was hand-selected by General Manager Baird Van Beever, a twenty-year veteran in the business who has managed Conte’s, Barcelona and Red Lulu. Van Beever spent two months choosing wines from around the world, and he’s created a diversified list that fits each price point and region.
We paired our flight with snacks recommended by Executive Chef Nick Bilello, who opened the original Burger Bar & Bistro in South Norwalk, where he stayed for five years. Prior to that, he owned Tenero in Norwalk. He’s hit his creative stride here. To wit: Bilello’s signature Swedish meatballs with foie gras gravy are served with a cranberry jam and a few slabs of crusty artisan bread—a satisfying combination. We liked the open-faced pork-belly sliders with arugula and tomato aioli, too. The pork came from a farm in upstate Connecticut. In fact, the restaurant will source more of its produce, cheese and meats from farms in the state, as they become available. We also had a chance to try the house-made flatbread pizza with its thin crust. There were slices with porcini mushrooms and Bridgid’s Abbey cheese from Cato Corner Farm in Connecticut.
The small plates are priced reasonably, anywhere from $8 to $15 each, which means you can enjoy gourmet-style finger food without spending a bundle, although you can certainly splurge if you want to.
We were seated in the back room for dinner, which kicked off with a good selection of farmstead cheeses and jams, including an award-winning raw-milk Gore-Dawn-Zola from the Boucher Family Farm in Vermont. That excellent starter was followed by a sweet and earthy beet salad with Beltane farm goat cheese, pistachio, greens and truffle honey. Although we were dining on a dark evening in late winter, Bilello managed to wring plenty of flavor from the produce, which he says is delivered every day.
The second course paired nicely charred shrimp with grits that were propped up against a crispy polenta cake and dribbled with sausage gravy. For the third course, there was more fresh seafood, including wild salmon with Swiss chard, mustard- seed vinaigrette and lemon fraiche. Our group really liked the “fish and chips,” which is beer-battered Atlantic cod (delivered daily) with homemade fries, coleslaw and chilled, smashed English peas. The dish is a nice twist on classic pub grub.
Between courses, we stepped outside to check out the patio off the back room. Here, there’s a wood-burning fire pit and cushioned lounges. In the warm months, this outdoor space will seat forty diners.
For the final course, Bilello had the ultimate comfort food: short ribs. The meat was all-natural and slowly braised in port wine, then served over a root vegetable hash. The side of mac and cheese with Gruyere, bacon and English peas enhanced the sentimental appeal of this home-style dish with a twist. In keeping with the rest of the menu, desserts are simple but carefully done, right down to the house-made cookies with granola milk. It’s a sweet way to end a pleasant night in what is sure to become a favorite spot for locals.
10 Center St., Darien, 203-614-8183