Market Restaurant, Stamford


★★1/2 (Very Good-Superior)

If the name Market conjures farmers flocking to grassy town squares to sell their fresh-picked lettuces, tomatoes and pears, Market will catch you up short. It did me. With my nose to the glass before the opening of this long-awaited new restaurant by the owners of Match in South Norwalk, I saw an army of shiny black tables in strict formation, a row of booths, a sleek modernistic bar. The words that came to mind were cool, sophisticated, minimalist, urban, hip-the opposite of homey, unless you live in a black and stainless steel pad in a Manhattan skyscraper.

Booked solid with no room for walk-ins on a Saturday night, Market was transformed. It throbbed with life. The crowd was young, enthusiastic and loud. A woman at the next table laughed like Woody Woodpecker. But, hey, these people were having a good time-no small thing in an angst-ridden clime. 

The tables were too close for comfort but it's about the food, isn't it? And comfort food is what Market is known for, the freshest and best in season, local whenever possible, stylishly presented, in keeping with the way we eat today.

And there it was, the first thing on the menu, as if to prove the point: Nonna's meatballs in all their nostalgic glory, but served as an appetizer on a small plate, each yummy pork-, veal- and ricotta-filled meatball the size of a walnut, not a baseball. Four salads were on offer, all interesting-one with candy-striped beets, one with fennel and walnut pesto, one with blood oranges and pomegranate seeds. But we were in the mood, and in the right place, for self-indulgence, and decided to go whole hog-literally in one instance, with an appetizer called "bacon and eggs." A fluffy mound of soft scrambled egg scented with truffles and chives arrived alongside braised, crisped Berkshire pork belly and a quenelle of crème fraîche.

In real life, one never gets too much foie gras but Match provided the illusion of luxurious excess by pairing hot and cold versions on one plate: lightly seared Hudson Valley foie gras served warm with a smear of pomegranate molasses and a cool, silky slice of tourchon garnished with a dab of quince chutney. 

Thus cosseted, we ebulliently ordered oysters, or tried to, but things did not go swimmingly. The menu listed "six iced Fanny Bay oysters in their shell with champagne granita and green apple confit" for $18 and "iced Fanny Bay oysters on the shell with traditional mignonette, and cocktail sauce made with house-made horseradish" at $2.75 apiece. We ordered three of each. "We can't do that," the server said. "We offered to pay whatever it would cost. Still no go. We sent her to ask the chef why not.

She went somewhere and came back. "No," she said, "maybe another time. We're busy tonight." We settled for six oysters prepared the same way-with champagne granita and green apple confit. Tracy was intrigued by them. I found them watery from the melting granita and far too sweet. 

But what's an oyster or two compared to Market's marvelous entrées, every one of them comfortingly familiar and excitingly fresh. Perfectly cooked striped bass, for example, owed its deliciousness to the simple excellence of its basic ingredients-wild bass, broccoli rabe, tomatoes and black olives.

Hand-made tubes of cannelloni filled with veal breast confit, spinach and herbed ricotta were tender and mild-a tad too mild for some. Tracy asked for salt and pepper but it's a matter of taste.

However, a maverick osso buco that substituted beef short ribs for braised veal shank was a unanimous winner, trumping the original with a rich, dark sweet-and-sour sauce and a surprise helping of kreplach made with farmer's cheese.

It takes talent and confidence to experiment with food to such delicious effect, and Market's executive chef Nicholas Martschenko has both. He comes to Market from a five-year reign at Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan, followed by a stint as executive chef at I Trulli. He also cooked alongside Melissa Kelly at Primo, and at the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in Old Chatham, N.Y.

The crowd comes to try something new, but big, bold grilled rib-eye steaks are reliably on hand. Ours came to the table medium-rare as ordered, an inch thick on the bone, with potato au gratin, spinach, onion rings and a ragu of mushrooms in a ketchup-spiked sauce.

Of course, there's dessert. Resist it if you can but your inner child will never forgive you. At Market you can have a mini ice cream cone topped with sprinkles. Or a fudgy brownie served in the doll-sized iron frying pan it was baked in, topped with an over-the-top topping of molten chocolate, gelato, hazelnuts and a candied cherry. And how about doughnut holes? Market filled them with fresh ricotta, rolled them in cinnamon sugar and provided lemon curd sauce for dipping. "Black mint panna cotta glazed Patron Café" involved a coffee-flavored brand of tequila and we were just punchy enough to make silly jokes about glazed patrons staggering around a café. To market, to market to buy a fat pig? It's more fun to go to Market, where the food is exciting and constantly changing according to what's ripening in the field and the chef's fertile imagination. It's a happening scene-with a plate glass window on the kitchen so you can watch.

Market Restaurant
249 Main St., Stamford (203/348-8000)

Lunch Monday through Friday 12 to 3. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10, Friday and Saturday till 11. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $11 to $17, entrées $23 to $42, desserts $8 to $10.

Market Restaurant, Stamford

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