Restaurant Review: Mediterraneo, Norwalk

 
Lobster salad is just one of the treats you'll find at Mediterraneo.

Lobster salad is just one of the treats you'll find at Mediterraneo.

Courtesy of Mediterraneo

★★ [Very Good]

If the name Mediterraneo makes you think of sun-splashed patios, terracotta tiles and pastel stucco walls, the new Mediterraneo in Norwalk will strike you as highly improbable. But there it is, on Main Avenue, aka Route 7, ensconced in the Hotel Zero Degrees, a bold architectural statement, modern verging on Brutalist. Devotedly functional with a large asphalt parking lot and small windows streetside, the building turns its back on traffic to create a stunning 120-seat restaurant and bar with a floor-to-ceiling glass wall looking out on the Norwalk River, a patch of woodland and a waterfall. In summer, the glass panels slide open so you can feel the fresh air and hear and see (as I did on my first visit) a Metro North train streaking by.

The dining room, with inlaid wood floorboards, silver pillars and watery green ceiling illumination, references an ocean liner or a shipping magnate’s yacht. Chairs and tables in various shapes and configurations encourage group get-togethers and low, curvaceous banquettes provide a sense of seclusion without interrupting the convivial ebb and flow.

The cuisine is Mediterranean reimagined to reflect the ever-changing food fashions of the day. Executive chef Albert DeAngelis (who trained at the Culinary Institute of America and has cooked in France and New York) oversees all six of the restaurants in the Z Hospitality Group owned by Ramze Zak-ka: Mediterraneo and Terra in Greenwich, Sole in New Canaan and Acqua in Westport. Menus vary but favorite dishes pop up at more than one of the sibling restaurants sometimes exactly replicated, sometimes not. Prince Edward Island mussels “with red curry cream” is a case in point.

In Norwalk to review, four of us sampled the mussels and tried to solve the mystery of what made that red curry cream so delicious. Cumin? Cilantro? Coriander? Lemon grass? Galangal? We dipped up every smidgen of sauce and moved on to a cooling contrast, black sea bass crudo: mild, almost transparent slices of raw fish “cured” with citrus, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and garnished with seaweed. Equally alluring was lump crabmeat salad, an opulent affair featuring big, juicy nuggets of Alaskan crab, dressed with ginger vinaigrette and served with a creamy mass of diced avocado. Soft-shell crab, deep-fried and addictively crisp, was so light it might have floated off the plate.

We were less enthusiastic about something the menu called “Grilled sucrine, Maytag blue cheese, bacon, dried cherry tomatoes, buttermilk dressing.” It turned out to be a rather clunky wedge salad made with all of the above. Listed as an appetizer, it was larger than some entrées.

A chilled lobster roll appetizer was generous, too, but in this instance all we could do was rave. Chunks of sweet Maine lobster, perfectly poached, out of the shell, were mixed with harissa aioli and heaped on a brioche bun with a pickled ramp alongside. Lovely largesse for $15.

Remembering a dish she’d enjoyed at Acqua in Westport, Judy ordered wood-roasted Amish chicken as an entrée. For me, it was a refreshing surprise. Chicken dark meat, a leg and a thigh, on a restaurant plate? Where can you get that anymore! It’s a wonder today’s chicken-breast-fed kids don’t grow up thinking chickens don’t have legs. The fat-phobic may give it a pass, but it’s roasted, not fried, and served with natural juice and grilled asparagus. For my taste it was simply perfect. Acqua habitués, however, may remember, as Judy did, that the chicken used to come with “absolutely heavenly” truffled French fries. Now, it comes with mashed potatoes, so we ordered a side of fries. Big disappointment. No truffle flavor, no mini-log cabin of chunky hand-cut fries. Just the usual contenders in a paper cone. Sic transit gloria.

Peppered yellowfin tuna, redeemingly, sparkled with freshness and ingenuity. Perfectly seared, rosy inside, it looked lovely and tasted even better with “rhubarb and Vidalia passato,” the menu’s punchier way of saying rhubarb and onion purée. Parmesan-crusted halibut— dainty medallions of snow-white fish, tomato chive buerre blanc and spinach—was even better, light and bright, red, white and green.

Sturdier stuff was on offer, too, a full-flavored Angus beef strip steak with mushroom-infused sherry vinegar, which was tasty but sliced a tad too thin for my taste. Early on we ordered a pizza to share. We chose a mod, designer-style pie topped with mushroom purée, Fontina cheese and fava bean salad. Not to worry, dear old pizza Margarita was available, too.

Desserts were traditional with innovative touches. Tuscan bread pudding acknowledged the current craze for caramel sauce, as did warm chocolate cake with caramelized banana pistachio gelato. Both were delicious. An assortment of Knipschildt chocolates did the famous chocolatier proud, and a classic tiramisu surprised us by doing nothing out of the ordinary except being one of the best renditions around.

With a lively bar, cocktail lounge and counter seating facing the open kitchen, Mediterraneo also caters the hotel’s open-air rooftop terrace lounge, a magical play place with luxurious seating, a portable bar and buffet, outdoor billiards and table tennis, a putting green and a life-size teak chess set. Planted with natural greenery and native grasses, stars overhead and a view of a waterfall, it’s a party waiting to happen.

Mediterraneo
Hotel Zero Degrees
353 Main Ave., Norwalk, 203/229-0000, hotelzerodegrees.com

Open Monday through Thursday 12 to 10, Friday and Saturday till 10:30, Sunday till 9:30. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $8 to $14, entrées $17 to $32, desserts $7 to $8.

 

Restaurant Review: Mediterraneo, Norwalk

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