★★ (Very Good)
Wow! Pow! Bonda at 9 o’clock on a Saturday night is crackling with energy and megaloud. It would take every starburst and exclamation point in a cartoonist’s repertoire to depict it graphically. And we’re not talking music, we’re talking people—young, animated, smiling, laughing, shouting, waving and chatting up a storm. All this on leafy Greenfield Hill in the space where the venerable très French La Colline Verte once sedately reigned supreme. In contrast, Bonda with its hip orange-and-aubergine color scheme and fun vibe is a churning sea of exuberance, with chef-owner Jamie Cooper running the show—really running it—greeting newcomers as if they were honored patrons of the old Bonda in Westport (which many of them probably are) darting in and out of the kitchen, and making himself continually available to staff members with problems to be solved. Actually, we have a problem.
Unavoidably late ourselves, we learn that two of our party are still wandering sans GPS in the wilds of Greenfield Hill. Will the kitchen close? “Not as long as you’re here,” the unflappable Mr. Cooper assures us. He’s as good as his word and when our friends finally arrive, we enjoy a leisurely meal enthusiastically served by what feels like a winning team happy with their coach.
The new Bonda’s menu takes off like a rocket to explore galaxies of flavor light-years away from the original’s Italian roots. No Nonna’s meatballs here but terrific pastas nonetheless, a frequently changing roster. (Tonight it’s cavatappi with grilled chicken, spinach, feta and chickpeas.) No Caesar salad but an entire sheaf of uncut romaine grilled, yes, grilled, with Parmesan and parsley-caper vinaigrette. This is a holdover from the old Bonda, one of those dishes the public won’t let a chef forget. It’s addictively tasty but dauntingly huge and hard to share. Not to worry, the kitchen will parcel it out for you.
Three other salads are on offer, all tempting enough to make it hard to choose. We settle for the grilled romaine and a warm salad of fire-roasted Brussels sprouts with shaved Parmesan, toasted hazelnuts and sherry-hazelnut vinaigrette, a beautiful balance of taste and texture. Unexceptional pan-roasted sea scallops get a mild flavor boost from curry-braised onions, but for more assertive flavor, look to New Orleans “Dirty Rice-otto” with Andouille sausage and shrimp. This creation is no mere matter of seasonings sprinkled on or stirred in. Each ingredient is infused with an elusively alluring shimmer of spice. My only complaint is that the fresh-tasting shrimp are served tail shells intact, making the tasty mélange messy to eat.
The most impressive entrée is a large organic Berkshire pork chop, neatly trimmed, bone Frenched, draped over a colorful mound of butternut squash mash. Kevin, who annually hosts a pig roast, doing the brining and cooking himself, admires this chop, tastes it and pronounces it excellent. Bonda uses a maple brine that cuts the richness and sweetens the salty-sharp taste of fire. Kevin approves and so do I.
King salmon is handsome, too, a rosy center cut roasted with admirable precision to exactly medium-rare as ordered. It’s “organic,” i.e., farmed (I prefer wild, though there are valid arguments on both sides of this debate), but the texture’s not bad and the flavor is pleasing if a bit mild.
Two intriguing entrées promise to rev up the heat. Tequila chipotle-braised lamb tacos and coriander-crusted “chicken Laksa” billed as a “spicy Thai curry.” We order both. The tacos arrive deconstructed: a bowl of barbecued lamb shredded like pulled pork, a cup of pickled red onions, fresh avocado and a supply of tender little corn tortillas. Assembled, they’re delicious.
The chicken Laksa is not. A thin slab of skinless, boneless chicken breast, dry and tasteless as cardboard, cannot be redeemed no matter how many sauces (curry with coconut milk, kaffir lime leaf and chicken broth) are poured over it. We pick at the garnishes—blackened string beans and sautéed red peppers—and persuade Judy to share the Bonda Burger she ordered because a friend told her it was the best burger she’d ever eaten.
Be that as it may, this is one great burger—high-quality beef, coarse-ground and handled lightly so it holds together, gilded with fine Cheddar gently melted. Served on a toasted English muffin with caramelized onions, hand-cut fries and two dipping sauces—pesto and aioli—it’s a burger to come back for.
Desserts are homey and unpretentious. A moist raisin-studded bread pudding and the excellent brownie à la mode stand out, but what I like best are the ice cream sandwiches homemade with chocolate-chip cookies that taste as if they were made from the original Toll House recipe. I want to go into the kitchen and snitch a dab of batter from the bowl.
The new Bonda has a sharp focus on fresh, local ingredients and a wider take on New American cuisine. It’s a sprightly new edition of something tried and true.
75 Hillside Rd., Fairfield, 203/292-9555, bondarestaurant.com
Dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 5 to closing. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $7 to $12, entrées $18 to $32, desserts $8.