Match, South Norwalk

 

★★★ (Superior)

On the stormy seas of SoNo, Norwalk’s Restaurant Row, erratic tides favor this, that or the other restaurant for a while only to leave it high and dry a year or so later. Bamboo, which almost nobody remembers, once had “Sopranos” fans fighting to get in (Joey Pantoliano was an owner). Amberjacks, with parking alongside, looked like a winner but eventually ran aground.

But Match, which opened 11 years ago with a brilliant young chef, Matthew Storch, and a state-of-the-art wood-burning oven, has led a charmed life, becoming and remaining a shining example of fine dining for the hip gourmet. I dined there soon after it opened, and found the menu exciting and the food a delight. 

And so it was on a recent Thursday night. Matt Storch, now co-owner (with Scott Beck), was in the kitchen, and the menu had moved on to keep pace with the times. Goodies galore. Where to begin? At the beginning, of course, with appetizers. And just because they’re not called something cute like “lite bites,” don’t think they’re not fun. BBQ Nachos & Ribs was the best street food I ever ate on a plate. Wonton chips smothered in barbecue sauce and cheddar cheese resided beside a pile of chunky guacamole and what the menu calls “falling-off-the-bone ribs.” All of the above was so deliciously irresistible the plate went back to the kitchen with only a couple of shiny, white, stripped-clean bones remaining. 

If mozzarella and tomato sounds mundane, prepare to be surprised. We were when a plate heaped high with color, flavor and crunch arrived. Tiny beads of mozzarella were strewn like pearls amid a tangle of microgreens, heirloom tomato, doll-sized croutons. Each ingredient was top-of-the-line, as was the aromatic balsamic vinaigrette.

At Match, the word “excellence” frequently applies. A pair of sliders brought it to mind. One was a miniburger of chopped prime beef, the other featured sweet-and-sour braised short ribs. Both were served on fresh seeded onion buns with a sit-up-and-take-notice slather of pomegranate mayo.

The ingredients in the “Fork and Knife Caesar” were also excellent, but I’m not sure deconstructing is a good idea when it comes to Caesar salad. The garlicky Parmesan dressing was splendid but could not be tossed or in any way induced to coat the uncut leaves of romaine. (Traditionalists, we asked for anchovies, which were cheerfully supplied.) 

Arugula salad was star of the salad show, consisting of wonderfully fresh arugula, warm Parmesan cream, charred onions, lemon juice and 24-year-old balsamic vinegar. 

Match promises—and delivers almost what it promises—gnocchi as light and fluffy as “kisses from angels.” Flights of fancy do crop up here and there on the menu, but somehow it doesn’t seem pretentious. Chefs like to have fun, so the gnocchi are tossed with a heavenly “30-second” heirloom tomato sauce and flecked with a few devilish flakes of chili.

Soft-shell crabs, a true test of culinary craft, were perfectly cooked, fried to a delicate pale gold, “hacked” and tossed with handmade noodles. So far, so mild—until we got a forkful of olive, caper, red- and black-pepper sauce hot enough to blow the top of your head off. The menu had warned us that this dish would be “SPICY” and the waiter emphasized the point but Margery ordered it anyway. And ate it up. Some like it hot.

Match still puts its wood-burning oven to good use. We ordered wood-roasted blackened swordfish, which arrived wreathed with ash-roasted fingerling potatoes, baby carrots, and chunky jalapeño-studded guacamole. The garnishes were delicious. The swordfish, glistening with a golden-raisin- and-pine-nut glaze, looked beautiful but was overcooked, cottony and dry. 

But Match’s famous osso buco, a robust, rip-roaring version of veal shanks alla Milanese, was magnificent. Instead of the more usual pale veal jus and garnish of lemon peel and minced parsley, a dark, mahogany-colored hunk of meat arrived, bone-in, marrow intact, blanketed with a deep, dark, sweet-and-sour braising brew that permeated every bite. The non-secret of this Match specialty is slow cooking—eight hours, to be exact.

In cooking as in acting, timing is everything, so we were not surprised when the best desserts at Match were cooked to order. A fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookie is good but when it’s rushed hot from oven to table, the still-melted chocolate staining your fingers when you pick it up, it’s irresistible. There were four on the plate. Then there were none. The best of the rest was a molten-chocolate cake—a glorious example of the genre. Fresh blackberry cobbler was almost as good, as were the house gelatos. We tried three. Lee liked cinnamon, Margery hated peanut butter, I fell for chocolate-flecked vanilla.

But we agreed about Match: It doesn’t need a TV show to be the star of SoNo.

Match
78 Washington St., Norwalk (203/852-1088; matchsono.com

Dinner Monday through Thursday and Sunday 5 to 10, Friday and Saturday till 11. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $10.95 to $17.95, entrées $19.95 to $32.95, desserts $6.95 to $8.95.

Match, South Norwalk

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