Restaurant Review: Washington Prime, Norwalk

Jeff Kaufman

Attention should be paid: A cool new bar and restaurant in a stunning new multiuse building complex called The Ironworks on the corner of Washington and Water streets in South Norwalk could be the start of something big. Is SoNo getting its groove back? Again?

Over the years, this historic, designedly offbeat section of Norwalk has waxed and waned in fits and starts. Shops and restaurants open and close and the mix tilts this way and that, sometimes hip and sometimes not.

This time the winds of change seem to be blowing in the right direction. All hands on deck. Carpe diem.

★★★ [Superior]

New restaurants, especially those with celebrity chefs or prominent locations, and even those preceded by a series of soft openings and press events, are habitually inundated with foodies fighting to get in. For a few weeks and sometimes longer, experienced restaurateurs scramble to cope, neophyte entrepreneurs rejoice prematurely and professional restaurant critics lie low. Washington Prime’s launch was lengthy, high spirited, egalitarian and loud. I covered one of the press dinners, which was staged, and held its own, in the midst of a Monday night crowd. The space was classy but casual. The food, a crazy-good mashup of intriguing ingredients, demanded a return visit.  Returning a few months later to give the food at Washington Prime my full attention, I discover that the menu is slightly different from the press dinner and from the restaurant’s website—a good sign. Somebody’s watching what sells. Grilled Caesar salad is not on the menu tonight. No great loss. On my previous visit, I found it awkward to eat and not worth the trouble. Happily, Lobster Casino is still available. This delectable creation is infinitely more delicious than listing its ingredients can convey: three ounces of lobster tail meat, bacon, garlic, bell peppers, bread crumbs, lemon preserve and demi-glace aioli. Trust me, seduction is made of this. I rarely order a dish a second time but I did so and it worked its magic again.Having chosen my dining companions carefully (hearty appetites, carnivore-friendly, adventurous eaters), I am well prepared to explore. We start with a wake-up call—octopus with pickled peppers (at right), guaranteed to make the taste buds snap to attention and tingle with the excitement of explosively hot pickled peppers and a sizzling drizzle of pepper emulsion. Paired with exceptionally tender octopus dressed with duck fat and served with marble potatoes, the dish is a beautifully balanced treat.

Washington Prime’s menu, like most thoroughly modern menus, lists categories and ingredients, eschewing adverbs and flossy descriptions—a practice I applaud. But the lobster bisque could, perhaps, do with a bit more explanation. It is indeed a classic bisque, and a terrific one. But it is not thickened with roux, rice or heavy cream as many newer “bisques” are. Brothlike, topped with a whisper of crème fraîche, the bisque I am dipping into is thin, confidently colorful and tastes so intensely of lobster, it makes me close my eyes and sigh with pleasure.

Temptations abound — soups, salads, small plates, large plates, sides, seafood by the piece . . . . For now we intend to do serious justice to an appetizer, a fish course, a meat course, and of course, dessert. A purist when it comes to salmon, I ascertain before I order that Washington Prime’s is wild, line-caught, purchased whole and filleted in house. One taste and I know that this salmon is all of the above, as well as sparklingly fresh and perfectly cooked so that it falls from the fork in moist, silky flakes.Grouper is equally appealing. Forget that viral video of a Goliath grouper swallowing a giant shark last summer. What’s on my plate now is mild as May—tender, sweet medallions of fish, gilded with carrot butter sauce and served with rice, tomato and asparagus.

I like both fish dishes and would order them again but both shine a light on the elephant in the room: Price. Not to worry, it’s a nice little elephant, extremely manageable, but keep an eye on it. The salmon and the grouper at $25 and $27 are listed as large plates but portions are smaller than some of the small plates, and some of those are smaller still. If you’re ravenous, you might want a couple of sides. Shrimp at $3 advises mental arithmetic, and for most of us a seafood tower at $65 for the small size and $95 for the large suggests planning ahead and arriving with a crowd.

But the prices are fair and the value is there (the chef uses only top-quality ingredients) and with a little care, it’s easy enough to assemble an affordable meal.

Which brings us to Washington Prime’s signature component: USDA Prime steaks. Here, this carefree, fun-loving gastropub comes into its own with luxe, luscious, deeply flavorful steaks fit for a king. We channel Henry XIII and order a champion 32 oz. Porterhouse steak for $78. Henry would have eaten all of it himself. We decide to share it four ways, thereby dining royally on $20 entrées.

The huge steak arrives cut from the bone for easy sharing, with the thick slices of rose-red meat repositioned around the bone for eye appeal. It tastes as good as it looks, we eat it all and I take the bone home not for the dog but for me. An 8 oz. filet mignon, a 14 oz. sirloin and an 18 oz. rib eye beef up the menu, which incidentally, is gluten free.

The dessert list is short and choice. We taste the four options and vote for our favorites: a tart, tangy deep-dish key lime pie and a velvety rich chocolate truffle bomb with caramel sauce.

With its striking contemporary decor, new-wave food, fabulous steaks, signature libations and high-energy environment, Washington Prime’s star quality provides a bright light in SoNo. 

Washington Prime

141 Washington St., Norwalk, (203) 857-1314, washingtonprimect.com

Mon.-Tues. dinner 4 to 10 p.m., Wed.-Sun. lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and dinner 4 to 10 p.m. Price range: appetizers $8 to $17, entrées $21 to $27, steaks $41 to $78, desserts $9. Major credit cards. Wheelchair access.

(This article was originally published on a different platform. Some formatting changes may have occurred.)

This article appeared in the December 2014 issue of Connecticut Magazine

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