There’s a healthy population of restaurant owners who will freely admit that success is sometimes achieved by accident and happenstance. Jay LeBlanc, chef and owner of Knot Norm’s Catering Co. in Norwalk, takes it to a whole different level. “I had no intention of opening a restaurant,” LeBlanc says. More than a few mouths are happy those plans changed.
The 32-year-old graduate of the International Culinary Center in New York was in the catering business, and his new First Street location in East Norwalk was supposed to house his commercial kitchen. LeBlanc envisioned blacking out the windows and doing tastings for weddings, but as he began to move his equipment into the space and set up, he couldn’t help but recognize there was a void in his corner of the state. “There is really no one doing New England seafood how it should be done in this area,” LeBlanc says. “[Copps Island Oysters] is right down the street, so I get my oysters, my lobsters, everything from them. My brother-in-law is at [Bloom Brothers] right down the street and he has the freshest clams you can get. It just made sense. I was like, I gotta do something with what we have.”
What LeBlanc is doing is earning rave reviews, especially for a lobster roll already being touted by some as among the best in the state. “When I opened I knew I was gonna have two things on my menu,” LeBlanc says. “I knew I was gonna have some type of fried chicken and a lobster roll.” What he didn’t know was exactly what type of lobster roll he would feature. Experimentation — aka delicious homework — was necessary. LeBlanc says it took over a week to find the right bun and the perfect combination of flavors that shine a spotlight on the star ingredient. “It’s lobster-forward,” LeBlanc says. “It’s got lemon, a little bit of Old Bay; I put micro celery on there because I think celery is awesome with most all seafood. And we found this bun that was dense, chewy, stood up to the butter and everything.”
Knot Norm’s features a split-top New England hot dog roll, with both sides buttered and toasted on the flattop. And if it works so well with lobster, LeBlanc thought, why wouldn’t it work with the fried chicken too? “Just from a simplistic standpoint, what would be more beautiful than only having one bread?” All eight rolls on the menu are served on the same bun.
While Knot Norm’s is becoming known for its lobster roll — adulation LeBlanc doesn’t exactly shy away from — he wants landlubbers to know, “We’re more than seafood.” If you’ve never been to this eatery that just celebrated its first birthday on July 14, rest assured you don’t need sea legs to walk in and find something you’ll love. The options, not including the daily specials, are broken down into two categories: Rolls and Knot Rolls (more on the inspiration for the restaurant name a little later).
The lobster and fried chicken are the main event, but the undercard is still loaded with pork belly, brisket, steak and cheese, and BLT rolls. Oysters and crab salad round out the rolls. On the Knot Rolls side are roasted oysters, steamed clams, fish tacos, chicken wings and a beet and apple salad — a deliberately simple menu crafted with an accomplished chef’s touch.
Full disclosure: I don’t like lobster. I understand that’s sacrilege tantamount to Connecticut’s version of original sin, but it’s how my taste buds were built. So while I did not order or sample the lobster roll (market price), my wife and I made quick work of the fried chicken (pickled cucumbers, pickled daikon, togarashi aioli, $8.50), brisket (Korean chili Ssäm Sauce, pickled cucumbers, pickled red onion, $10), and pork belly (flash-pickled cabbage, soy ginger caramel sauce, sesame seeds, $9). All were uniquely exceptional, and the beet and apple salad ($10) provided a refreshing change of pace.
The beer and wine list is surprisingly comprehensive, but more understandable when learning LeBlanc was a craft beer sales rep for five years while putting himself through culinary school.
The space itself is on the small side, but the outdoor seating is fantastic for people-watching the crowd at Mr. Frosty’s Ice Cream across the street.
As for the name, the obvious guess is that it’s “not the norm,” with a “k” added for maritime flavor. While that may be accurate, it’s not the origin. When he was 24, LeBlanc was saving up for a boat. He saw an ad for a local auction, went, and found himself the lone bidder for a 32-footer. After cruising to Port Jefferson, a group of girls walked by the boat and said, “Oh, must be nice.” What? “Daddy let you borrow the boat for the weekend.”
He told this story to a group of people one night when he was trying to come up with a name for his boat. His brother-in-law’s mom simply pointed out, “It’s not your father’s. It’s not Norm’s.”