As you drive up, the valet is waiting to take your keys. Up a flight of stairs is a lively bar and restaurant area with exposed beam and large windows and tables on a patio overlooking the Silvermine River. Halfway through your meal, a server may climb into the garden beside the outdoor dining area to pick ingredients for a cocktail, and you’ll learn that Oscar winner Anne Hathaway reportedly dined here days earlier.
Welcome to Tavern at GrayBarns in Norwalk. One of Connecticut’s toniest restaurants, it features impeccable service and top-notch cuisine. It opened in 2017 in the space formerly home to the legendary Silvermine Tavern, which drew the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Spencer Tracy in its day, and was a small textile factory before that. It is part of the GrayBarns on the Silvermine River complex, which opened at the same time.
Nicole Glazer, an owner along with her parents Andrew and Marsha Glazer, says that when they renovated the property they wanted to preserve the history of the buildings and emphasize the natural beauty of the surroundings. “Architecturally speaking, the Inn and Tavern allow for ample views of the Silvermine River,” Nicole Glazer says. “We used and preserved a lot of the natural beams and all of the fireplaces from the pre-existing structure. We used modern elements like glass to complement the more historic feeling.”
The tavern’s kitchen is run by Benjamin Freemole, whose talents shine in dishes like the gnudi (gnocchi-like pasta dumplings made with ricotta cheese instead of potatoes) and the salmon, which comes with a sightly mix of leeks vinaigrette, trout roe and crème fraîche. “After a quick trip to Paris and eating a pungent leeks au vinaigrette, I admired the dish on a new level,” Freemole explains. “We paired it with the richness of salmon and assisted the flavors with crème fraîche, and some great trout roe. The leeks are cleaned and steamed, then tossed in a very classic mustard and shallot vinaigrette and loaded with parsley, watercress, tarragon and chives. The salmon is pan-roasted and finished with fresh lemon and lays atop sauce gribiche.”
The gnudi is served with lobster fra diavolo, and is a wonderful dish full of ingredients that whirl together perfectly in terms of appearance and flavor. “We make delicate small ricotta gnudi that helps to mellow out a little of the fire from the Calabrian-spiked diavolo sauce,” Freemole says. “Our diavolo sauce is treated like a passata [a type of paste] and just quickly cooked to keep the flavor of the tomatoes in the forefront with the kick of spice. Lobster and spice are a great pairing. Little local shiso and garlic chips replace the usual basil and bread crumbs.”
These main dishes go well with equally impressive cocktails such as an on-tap version of the classic boulevardier cocktail and the Polanco margarita, which features tequila, fresh lime juice, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao and agave nectar, and served with a chili-salt rim. The evening is further enhanced by a server who seems able to read our thoughts. As soon as a drink is finished and put down on the table, he appears asking if we would like another.
Although the place is pricey, the hefty cost is worthwhile in all but a few of the dishes I sample. Two dishes we order from the raw or chilled portion of the menu leave us wanting a bit more. The summer crudité is an eye-catching assortment of vegetables, but even with sides of tahini ranch and garbanzo hummus, the $18 dish feels too simple for its price. Meanwhile, the gazpacho is fresh and bright-tasting and quite decent, but at $15 for a small bowl, decent isn’t good enough.
The restaurant redeems itself with offerings like the crab toast with sourdough bread and the fried green tomatoes. Crème brûlée and flourless chocolate tart are both strong desserts, which I highly recommend if you visit.
By the time we leave, it’s quite clear why Freemole is a rising star in the Connecticut culinary world and has earned the respect of many of his peers in the industry. It’s also clear that Tavern at GrayBarns is worth visiting for those willing to pay extra for excellent food and a high-end experience.
Tavern at GrayBarns
194 Perry Ave., Norwalk
Price range: Raw and chilled $15-$22, small plates $15-$23, pastas and grains $20-$32, large plates $24-$60
Hours: Sun. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. (brunch), 5-8:30 p.m., Mon. & Tue. 5-9 p.m., Wed.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-9:30 p.m.
Ambiance: Upscale but casual. Polished wood tables and a lively dining room adjoin a bar area. Both dining spots overlook a beautiful river.
Service: Impeccable. Our waiter spoke with deep knowledge about the menu, had good recommendations and was so attentive he seemed just short of clairvoyant.
Food: High-quality ingredients with recipes from a skilled chef result in some truly memorable flavors and dishes.