Sails American Grill, Rowayton
★½ (Good-Very Good)
Rowayton, technically a section of Norwalk, is a cozy enclave on Five Mile River where every resident has a boat or dreams of getting one. When The River Cat Grill on Rowayton’s Main Street closed last year, it was like losing a front tooth. Never mind that “the Cat” had grown a tad tired, there was supposed to be a restaurant there because there always had been, essential as the Post Office, the fish market, the grocery store and Five Mile River itself, with its swaying masts, dinghies and docks.
Of course, the locals could dine elsewhere but if they were so inclined, they would prefer to go by boat, ideally en route to Martha’s Vineyard or Antigua. For resident yachtsmen, Rowayton is a port to come home to. For adventurous inlanders who like to poke around boatyards and sniff salt air, it’s a destination.
So when Sails American Grill opened where The River Cat used to be, a hungry crowd was more than ready to come aboard. With new owners (who also have a restaurant on Nantucket), Sails American is shipshape and bright, with a gray and dark blue color scheme and a dining room tented with snowy-white canvas “sails.”
Although the chef is the same as at River Cat, the menu has been brought up to date. Nothing weird, of course, just politely trendy. In Rowayton “on the water” means Lasers and catamarans, not surfboards and cigarettes.
We chose a Friday night to review the scene, arriving early to check out the decor, which is genuinely stylish. No shabby fishnets and lobster traps here. Classic sailing vessels photographed by Michael Kohn adorn the walls. Yacht fittings gleam like silver here and there. The bar with its luminous backlight is stunning.
Then the crowds piled in and the place came alive. The noise level rose gradually to an ear-splitting din. Nobody was screaming and only the waiters were rushing around, it’s just that the restaurant is all hard surfaces, and on Fridays large parties seem to be in the majority.
We ordered too many appetizers because nobody told us that at Sails American appetizers are more like small plates. But with one exception, we loved every starter we ordered, especially the mac ’n’ cheese scented with truffle oil and topped with Parmesan bread crumbs.
Fried clam bellies were delicious, tender and sweet, crispy and crunchy, clearly freshly fried—served with a lovely smoked red-onion aioli. Steamed mussels were excellent, too, paired with chorizo, apples and pumpkin cream. But the appetizer I expected the most from—“Braised short rib flatbread with wild mushrooms, Fontina, caramelized onions and braising greens”—baffled me.
I’d envisioned a sumptuous mixture of beef short rib off the bone and soppy with sauce on a wafer or two of crust. What arrived was a dinner-plate-size square thin-crust pizza with tiny pieces of mushroom and even tinier bits of dry meat sprinkled skimpily on top. Only a slight sheen suggested the presence of Fontina, and there were no caramelized onions. Lukewarm, almost cool and cut into 12 squares, it looked like a plate of hors d’oeuvres and I had to resist an unholy notion to take it to the bar and pass it around. With a double scotch in my other hand, perhaps.
Grilled Caesar salad was a mystery. Our waiter swore it had been grilled but every shred of romaine was crisp and green with no hint of the grill to be seen, and it was ice-cold. Still, I liked it a lot.
We also liked the herb-crusted-goat-cheese-and-beet salad, although the candied pecans promised were too few and chopped too fine to add much flavor.
Ah, but the special of the day, black cod with wild boar sausage, was divine. Perfectly cooked, this may have been the best piece of cod I’ve ever eaten. The waiter raved about the wild boar sausage, which was tasty indeed. The combination was inspired. Portuguese fishing village refined.
Cedar-planked wild salmon, fresh and silken in texture, was served au naturel so the delicate flavor of cedar could be appreciated. With fish this good, there’s much to be said for the subtle approach.
Bouillabaisse à la Sails American laid its claim to fame on the quality and sparkling freshness of its shellfish: mussels, scallops and shrimp, each perfect in its way, splashed—not sloshed—with a light tomato-saffron sauce, served in a deep bowl with a few garlic croutons for crunch.
Desserts are kid stuff, which is okay. “Salty turtle,” easy to make with vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, caramel sauce and salty pecans, was also easy to like. So was a mint chocolate brownie with Heath Bar ice cream, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Butterscotch pudding was a cozy trip back in time to mom’s kitchen table with the radio on. But I’m not sure we should be encouraging the kiddies to disparage America’s warm chocolate cake obsession by calling it “ooze cake.”
Sails American Grill
148 Rowayton Ave., Rowayton (203/853-7245)
Lunch Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30 to 3:30, brunch Sunday 11:30 to 3:30. Dinner Tuesday through Thursday 5 to 10, Friday and Saturday till 10:30, Sunday 4 to 9. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $7 to $14, entrées $21 to $30, desserts $8.