Bon Appétit Café, Wilton

 

★★★ (Superior)

Bon Appétit fans are a passionate but divided group. Half don’t like to talk about it for fear it will become so popular they can’t get in. The other half, eager to share, begin by telling you how they couldn’t find it although they knew where it was supposed to be, how they drove around and around and finally parked and phoned. “Bonsoir. Ah, oui. Turn off zee car. You are here.”  

Same thing happened to me when shortly after Bon Appétit opened I decided to take a look. It is where it’s said to be, in Wilton Center near the Stop & Shop supermarket. Trouble is, it’s a storefront but you can’t see in, and the only sign, script on plate glass, is almost invisible, especially at night.

But chef-owner Dominique Arrighi thinks like the Frenchman he is and he’s right. If the food is magnifique, people will find it. They did when he presided over Voilà! in Fairfield in the days when you had to call three weeks ahead to get a table on a Saturday night. 

Today, Dominique Arrighi and his talented partner, chef Lionel Arnal, are cooking good food for a goodly crowd in Wilton. Soccer moms at lunch, movers and shakers at dinner, all in all a sophisticated bunch who’ve been to Paris a time or two and know good French food when they taste it. 

Bon Appétit on a Saturday night is Voilà! all over again: exuberant, animated and loud, with authentic French food and a double helping of Gallic joie de vivre.

The printed menu is comfortingly familiar—soupe à l’oignon, escargots à la bourguignonne. The blackboard menu, lugged from table to table, is where the action is. Would you believe wild boar? We order from both menus, which, taken together, add up to a lot of work for a tiny open kitchen where everything takes place in plain sight.

French onion soup, which used to be on menus everywhere, is now harder to find. Bon Appétit’s version is nostalgia in a bowl—pale gold, wildly flavorful beef broth thick with caramelized onions bubbling hot in a glazed clay casserole sealed with melted Grûyère. As an appetizer, tiny and tender escargots, out of their shells and glistening with garlic butter, nestle contentedly in the thumb-print-sized indentations of a china escargot dish. One taste and we’re contented, too.

Saumon fumé pairs delicately smoked salmon with a refreshing salad of chopped Belgian endive in yogurt dressing. Toasted sunflower seeds and capers add texture and tang. 

This is a kitchen that goes to the trouble. To wit: Not one but two house-made pâtés are on offer, one made with venison (gamier, drier), one with pork (creamier, spicier). We like both.

Wild boar is a flavorful, exceptionally lean meat—much leaner than production pork. As such, it requires careful cooking and, ideally, a rich sauce. Bon Appétit cooks shank ends of wild boar until the meat is ready to leave the bone at a touch of the fork, supplies it with an earthy, mushroomy sauce, and serves it with a heap of fluffy, crunchy, nutlike spelt to add contrasting “mouth feel” to the silky meat and sauce.

Fish does not appear on the printed menu because the chef buys what looks best at the fish market every day. Careful not to over-supply, they sometimes run out. We snag the last order of monkfish, which arrives in a creamy, saffron-scented sauce, which I love—but be warned, it’s wickedly rich. A beautiful piece of Arctic char, fresh and nicely cooked, pushes the creativity envelope a bit with a tart plum sauce.

The only non-French dish on the menu, osso buco, falls short if you expect classic ossi bucchi alla Milanese garnished with gremolata, which I suppose we shouldn’t, but we do. Bon Appétit’s version in a heavy brown sauce is more pedestrian. But what it lacks in sparkle it makes up for with a big, cross-cut bone full of marrow that my friends decline but I excavate with relish.

Desserts are house-made bistro favorites: smooth and quivery crème brûlée, an ultra-intense chocolate mousse, a cozy, custardy, farmhouse-kitcheny croissant bread pudding. The crust on the peach tart is unevenly baked but ’tis a small thing easy to forgive in the happy hubbub.

Chairs and tables are pushed around, reconfigured, reset. Even if you’re not that kind of person, you might find yourself chatting with people at other tables—like fellow conspirators in on a delicious secret, as indeed you are, or would be but for tell-all journalists like me.

Bon Appétit does a brisk business at lunch, when the menu features casual fare like croque monsieur and salade Niçoise. But we prefer dinner, when we can linger over our wine and absorb the atmosphere.

Piaf is singing her heart out on the sound system and a French poster on one wall depicts a car I covet parked in front of the Eiffel Tower. If Bon Appétit were a car, it would be a robin’s egg blue Citroën 2C4 Deux Chevaux.

Bon Appétit Café
5 River Rd., Wilton (203/563-9002)
Lunch Tuesday through Saturday 11 to 4, brunch Sunday till 2. Dinner Tuesday through Saturday 5 to 9. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $6.50 to $11, entrées $18 to $26, desserts $6.50.

Bon Appétit Café, Wilton

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