Friday, June 11, 2010

Basso Cafe

It's strange how time can pass you by—a veritable blink in the universe—yet you turn around and realize that, no, it hasn’t been a couple of days since you did that thing you did but it was actually two months ago. Herein is the source of my guilt. It has been 51 days since my last blog post (so why does this sound like a confessional?!?). Mind you, this doesn’t mean I haven’t been eating. Oh contraire . . . I’ve been eating my way all over the place. It’s just that sometimes life gets in the way . . . you know, the usual—like the glorious but long awaited two week honeymoon that I spent in the Seychelles and Dubai with my husband—these things just sort of add up.

But I’m back now, and ready to chomp my way all over Stamford . . . and beyond.

The feast began with a Friday dilemma that is most common in our household: although I love to cook, the weekends tend to leave my culinary mojo completely exhausted and I am subsequently determined not to cook. So this typically begs the question “Where do we want to eat tonight?” This is usually uttered by me, and is immediately followed up in response by my husband with “I dunno. Where do you wanna eat?”

So when that never-ending question reared its ugly head recently, I decided to turn to my trusty “Restaurant Database”—a creation of my own which includes thus far 80 area restaurants that I would like to give a try. After narrowing the options down to five places, the winner was Basso Café, a sleek little Mediterranean fusion eatery on New Canaan Avenue in Norwalk.

After driving past the restaurant twice, we claimed a small measure of success when we parked the car and made our way towards the welcoming doors of the restaurant. Seriously, the doors were opening for us as we approached.

Basso Café is a small place with an eclectic mix of artwork adorning the walls. On the west wall were a series of colorful coffee mugs on canvas; the north wall held a large mural-type of painting with various random strokes of color; on the east wall was a series of more contemporary paintings that ended with one very traditional, old world painting.

We sat at a small table tucked into a niche in the bay window where I felt like I was in a fish bowl on display for the entire world to see. In an instant we were greeted by our waitress, who turned out to be an extremely likeable woman who had a wealth of knowledge about the menu (and as well she should!). Without a word said between the two of us, I handed her my bottle of wine* and she proceeded to uncork it and pour a glass for me.

*NOTE: Basso Café has a BYOB policy (which is pointed out on their web site towards the bottom of the lunch and dinner menus), so I came prepared with a bottle of Lucien Albrecht 2008 Pinot Blanc Cuvee Balthazar, a French variety from my private collection. They charge a $10 corkage fee per bottle.

I glanced at the dinner menu and the accompanying list of Specials for the evening. If the descriptions of the various dishes were apt and true, then this was going to be an immensely satisfying experience. The regular menu consisted of appetizers that were, in actual fact, appetizing. The first thing to catch the attentions of my taste buds was the Lobster Saffron Risotto Sicilian Stylepoached Maine lobster and saffron risotto with Brandy sauce. If that didn’t sound delicious enough, the Fritelle di Carciofi—deep fried battered fresh artichokes with Percorino Romano, lemon and basil—took my hunger up just a notch.

From the Specials menu, I naturally salivated over the Crab Cakes served over organic baby greens with a champagne vinaigrette, but internally reasoned that I eat crab cakes every freakin’ place I go, so it was time to give my favorite bites a rest. For more than a minute, I mulled over the Mango Gazpacho, but then my thoughts turned back to the regular menu starters. So it had come down to this: It was a mental standoff between the Chicken Empanadas with pulled chicken and sofrito in a pastry shell turnover, or the Arepas, authentic Venezuelan corn cake medallions stuffed with homemade avocado chicken salad. My sense of adventure won out and, going with the dish that I had never had the pleasure of trying before, I opted for the Arepas.

Maarten was thisclose to getting the Bruschetta di Parma, but I reminded him that not only had he been eyeballing the Sardines al ajillo with lusty interest from the Specials, he could get a Prosciutto di Parma, roasted peppers and sun dried tomatoes crostini practically anytime he wanted. Why not go for those tiny braised sardines with the shaved garlic, lemon and extra virgin olive oil, which he claimed to have not had in oh so long a time? So that’s what he ordered. It’s good to possess the power of persuasion.

Deciding on our entrées wasn’t nearly as easy. I was in a food quandary. Do I get the seared Maine diver Sea Scallops over creamy polenta and crisp pancetta? Maybe my mouth was ready for a chunk of Almond Crusted Salmon with an artichoke puree and cherry tomato compote? But then again, that Tuscan Grilled Chicken Under a Brick sounded tempting (and they really do cook it under a brick).

While I chewed on my bottom lip in abject frustration, Maarten had his own food issues to deal with. He was musing on the crispy skin Duck Breast in a port wine reduction with vegetable terrine, but his thoughts lingered a bit on the Rib-eye Steak and the Cavatelli Chicken Scarpariell tossed in hot cherry peppers, white wine and lemon sauce.

Fifteen minutes of contemplation later, we both made our decisions: the Duck Breast for me and the Tuscan Grilled Chicken Under a Brick for Maarten.

We were entertained with the lovely strains of jazz and Spanish guitar music while we waited—not live, mind you, but from the overhead speakers. The level of the music was appropriately low enough to allow us to engage in idle conversation.

And then it happened. It materialized from the kitchen as if floating on a magical hypnotic cloud. Okay…maybe not so much, but when the plate was placed in front of me, I did salivate.

The Arepas looked like two little stuffed cookie sandwiches oozing with a zesty looking salad. One delectable bite told me this was no cookie. The avocado commingling with the shredded chicken and assorted herbs created a flavorful blend. Each bite forced more and more chicken salad out the sides of the corn cakes, but I successfully devoured both medallions with the finger-licking precision of a tigress on the prowl. And if it weren’t for the fact that I was sitting in a public place, I surely would have growled happily and loudly with absolutely no compunction whatsoever.

As I ate my appetizer, so too did Maarten. When I saw the Sardines al ajillo on the menu, I was expecting to see a few of those cute little fish like my mom used to eat straight out of a can when I was a child. I am so woefully out of touch. These sardines weren’t the diminutive three-inch swimmers I anticipated but rather eight-inch monsters that stared at me from across the table. Those eyes. Those lips. It was all a bit scary to me, especially given that they had been horribly mangled while in the kitchen, which didn’t add a bit of pleasure to the aesthetic appeal. However, Maarten swears the sardines were good. Really. I opted to take his word for it rather than acquire that knowledge first-hand.

After the table was cleared of our respective empty plates, we waited about twenty minutes before the main course arrived.

Me and my high hopes.

Yes, I had them, and history tells us not to get our hopes up astronomically high. While this is sage advice to follow, I usually don’t, which typically results in catastrophic disappointment. But still, it couldn’t be helped. My hopes were soaring. After all, the appetizer was yummy; what’s to stop me from reasonably believing that the entrée won’t be equally delicious, or better?

The moment of truth arrived at the table right along with the stark white plates with the artfully arranged provisions.

Maarten’s Tuscan Grilled Chicken Under a Brick looked, well, good enough to eat! It was one-half of a grilled and marinated organic chicken draped over a puff of garlic mashed potatoes. Served on the side were sautéed baby carrots and beets. Everything was swimming in a tiny lake of lemon and rosemary sauce that enhanced the flavors without stealing the show. The chicken was prepared to near-perfection (the skin could have been a bit crispier for my tastes, but that’s merely my personal opinion) and incredibly tender and juicy. All chicken on planet earth should taste this good.

When my Duck Breast made its grand entrance, lying side by side with an equally long serving of the vegetable terrine, I was a little suspect. The scents floating up from the plate put all uncertainties to rest. Have your olfactory senses ever had the pleasure of smelling the aroma of succulent? It’s difficult to describe but my nose knows it when it’s there. The duck, which I requested be prepared well-done, was tender with just a hint of chewiness and was infused with an overwhelmingly delicious flavor. While slightly fatty, the duck skin was crispy without being burnt. The one slight that I do have, however, is that the skin was a bit salty and when eaten by itself—sans the duck meat—it was far too briney and gave me a mild case of lock jaw. Other than that minor faux pas, it was a glorious piece of duck.

The vegetable terrine—a dish that I had never before tried—was filled with zucchini, roasted red peppers and ricotta cheese. The menu did say this would be a warm dish, but it was actually cooler than room temperature (especially the ricotta), which I found refreshing and not offensive at all. This dish, which comes in a number of varieties in the culinary world with different veggies, is one that I believe I will add to my cooking repertoire. It was so good that not only did I finish the entire loaf but I was tempted to coax another piece from the waitress.

When it was all said and done, we both suffered from Empty Plate Syndrome. Oh sure, there was a discarded chicken leg pushed to the side, a stray piece of duck skin here, a rogue carrot there, but by and large it was a dismal failure on the part of the food to thwart our dining intentions.

Given that I was sufficiently stuffed, I didn’t think it fair to my stomach to ply it with more food. However, my brain had other plans. When the waitress began rattling off the homemade dessert line-up, I wanted to slip into kiddie mode, clamp my hands over my ears and yell “I can’t hear you! I can’t hear you!” Instead, I meekly said “I’ll have the Tres Leches Cake.” Maarten went the relatively boring route and opted for Raspberry Sorbet.

Any supposed diet that I may have been pretending to be on went totally out the window with that one piece of cake. Imagine, if you will, three different kinds of milk soaked into a thick hunk of sweet vanilla cake. Then, to add caloric insult to fat-producing injury, drizzle the whole concoction with caramel.

The nerve.

I ate every single bit of it. I even came close to licking the plate. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it hundreds of times: There is no shame to my game.

I guess by now you’ve figured out that my husband and I enjoyed our experience at Basso Café. When faced with consummate service and equally enjoyable food, it’s difficult not to imagine what your next visit will be like. One thing I can say for sure: there will be repeat visits to Basso Café.

Is Basso Café recommended? Definitely. Basso Café’s menu alone makes it a place to return to time and time again. The Mediterranean Fusion cuisine is a nice departure from standard fare, and mix in the way the food actually tastes and it’s a winner.

Is Basso Café a good value or do you need to take out a loan to eat here? Basso is not exactly a budget priced restaurant, but if you select your dishes wisely, you can enjoy a great meal without going bankrupt. Pair the Smoked Audoille Sausage appetizer ($7) with Rigatoni Amatriciani pasta ($21) and Mango Sorbet ($7) for dessert, and you walk away only $35 poorer for one person (not including tax and gratuity). A bargain is what you make it!

What about atmosphere and ambience? Basso is small, but that only adds to the charm. The artwork, the cool vibe, the gracious wait staff and the great music emanating from the speakers all do justice to the atmosphere and makes you feel instantly welcome.

Basso Café
124 New Canaan Avenue
Norwalk, CT 06850

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