When Chef Arik Bensimon left his cushy job as Executive Chef at Napa & Company in Stamford, he didn’t really have a set plan in place. “I didn’t know where I was going to end up,″ he told us in an interview. Many might think he was crazy to leave a job like that, but a chef with raw talent needs to explore, needs to branch out, and needs to make his own mark on the culinary world. After all, no risk, no reward! After leaving Napa, Arik was fortunate enough to have met Andrey Cortes, Chris Hickey, Shawn Longyear, and Christopher Rasile and they instantly clicked. It’s like it was a match made in…well…culinary heaven. And from that bond, The Spread was born.
We asked Arik about what was his inspiration for the menu at The Spread, and he shared, “Thanksgiving, doing things family style, bringing people together. I want people to interact with each other, share, talk, and enjoy. It brings about better conversation, opens up people a lot more. I’d love for people to go out, order half the menu, and share it with their friends. People can just order entrees, too, if they don’t feel like sharing. There is some adventurous food, but also some nice classics that all people can appreciate.″ You can see, then, how Sean’s idea of naming their new restaurant The Spread jives well with the spread on the table and family style eating. Also of note is Arik’s commitment to using locally sourced ingredients and cheese for the menu.
Finally, after months of waiting, we got ourselves a reservation and headed into SoNo. When we walked in, we were nostalgic for Havana that used to be there and where we went on our first date. Inside, though, things were so different, so modern (yet rustic), so much bigger, and so much more lively. The tables were full, the bar was full, everywhere was full. Our waiter later told us that this was one of the busiest nights he’d ever seen. Hand it to us to go on that night, huh? That being said, we did have to wait a while past our reservation, but passed the time away by sipping some mixed drinks from the bar. Kristien had the Tico Juice which was exotic, had just the right amount of sweetness and fruitiness, but needed a little more liquor. Dan had The Tea Bag (Kristien felt awkward asking for this at the bar) which was also good that didn’t get overpowered because of the tea infused bulleit bourbon…a very nice balance.
When the time came to order, as is usually the case with us, we couldn’t decide on what to eat because each dish looked creative, exquisite, and exciting. We decided, though, to go with a few small plates and have two bigger plates for our own enjoyment. Moroccan carrots, lardo & figs, little neck clams, marinated beets, veal confit, griddled pork belly, and apple crisp…yeah, we were hungry but couldn’t come close to eating all of the 36 parts (not including dessert) of this menu. Let’s go through our meal together and show you some of the dishes that you’ll need to try when you visit.
At first the cumin hits you, but then slowly it fades away as the cilantro kicks in. The ingredients were paired very nicely and definitely aren’t a combination that we’d ever think to use. We were happy to see that the carrots weren’t served raw, but were cooked and were that perfect soft consistency you hope for to achieve a nice crunchy snap. We’d order these again for sure.
Lardo with fresh figs and walnuts
What would seem to be an incredibly simple dish, was most definitely not. The plating is beautiful, very playful, begging you to make your meal interactive. Strips of lardo (cured strips of pig fat) lay across the plate with bits of walnut and fig on top. Without hesitation, we wrapped up the fig and walnut with the lardo and made a nice roll. When you first bite down, you get the salt and extra virgin olive oil that was at the bottom of the plate, then you taste the delicate texture and fatty taste of the lardo. Adding contrast was the fresh fig and the crunchy walnut made it absolutely perfect. As we were finishing up this dish, our waiter saw us wrapping up the lardo and complimented us on eating the dish correctly. Yeah, that’s how we roll!
Little Neck clams with cranberry beans and chorizo
The clams (without the shell) were cooked nicely and were mixed in with smoky chorizo slivers, a flavorful (and slightly salty) broth, and cranberry beans. While the beans are tougher than other beans that you might be used to, that’s a characteristic of the cranberry bean. This added a nice contrast to the clams and chorizo.
Marinated Beets with pistachos and blood orange
Even before you devour this plate, you can’t help but smell the citrusy blood orange wafting through the air. But, we weren’t going to sniff the plate the whole night, so we dug in. There are so many fun things going on with this dish. First off, you get the nice play in textures with the snap of the fresh beets and the softness (they were softer than normal) of the pistachios. Yes, odd how that works…you’d expect it to be the other way around, huh? Secondly, the acidic and citrusy notes from the blood orange contrasted so nicely with the earthiness of the beets. This was light, refreshing, and one of our favorites.
Veal confit with orzo and lobster
With dishes like this, you can see Executive Chef Arik Bensimon and Sous Chef Carlos Baez shine. Very rich, very hearty. Much of the heartiness came from the most delicate veal that we’ve probably ever tasted. In fact, it pulls right off in flakes with just a gentle tug like you were eating pulled pork. The orzo was delicious and the sauce was earthy and had a generous amount of salt in it. The lobster was slightly overcooked but added a great flavor. This was a real treat and we’d order it again as well.
Griddled pork belly with French lentils and smoked ham hocks
We can’t even figure out where to start with this dish, so we’ll start with the lentils. They were cooked perfectly and weren’t mushy at all. The sauce that the lentils were cooked in was bold, earthy, and again had a generous measure of salt in it. A nice touch to this dish was using the delicate smoked ham hocks (showing off Arik’s love of “whole animal” approach) that added another complex layer to the dish. Now, onto the pork belly. It was a manageable size and melted away in your mouth as you took a bite. Taking a little bit of the pork belly with the lentils, ham hocks, and sauce was just phenomonal. Quite a nice balance of flavors and textures going on.
We ordered coffee with cream and an apple crisp to finish up our meal. Although we got milk, we couldn’t be mad because it came in these cute little cow pourers and was served hot like it is in Spain. The coffee was strong and had a nice boldness to it, too. The apple crisp arrived with a smooth and creamy gelato on top. The crisp on top was a bit crunchy, but didn’t have that crisp texture we were looking for. On the inside, the apples were spiral cut and almost seemed like they were overcooked. We did get nice hints of cinnamon and loved the tartness coming from a sauce that had gathered at the bottom, we’re guessing lemon. Overall, the dessert was decent, but not as mind-blowing as the meal.
We absolutely enjoyed our meal (in case you couldn’t tell), and think people that love rich foods packed with a variety of interesting flavors will love it as well. Also, while some of the dishes did seem to favor a decent amount of salt, we felt that it was never overdone. The service was very friendly, though a little on the slow side (but it was crowded in their defense). The ambiance is very South Norwalk, meaning the bar is crowded, loud dance music is playing throughout and people are shouting. If you’re into that scene, rock on, but we can sympathize with people wanting to go on a weekday evening or just a tad earlier. And although some of our OmNomivores think otherwise, we found the cost to be decent considering we went all out with food, drinks, dessert, and coffee and paid our “average” bill cost.
We still want to go back because there is lots on the menu that we need to try. Cristiano (he’s the man, btw) who used to work at Bacchus now works at The Spread and he said his favorite items on the menu are the cheeseburger and the gnocchi, made with pastry dough rather than potato. Also, we want to try the mackerel, under suggestion from James D’Adamo, dad of Alex/Sunday Diners, that we ran into…we love that guy and we finally got to meet Ann! What makes coming back more exciting, too, is that Arik is often changing the menu up to highlight local ingredients and whatever is fresh and in season. Also of note is that The Spread is open for Sunday brunch from 11-4 and a highlight of that menu right now is the deep fried rabbit, which can also be ordered for dinner. Yeah, that’ll be up next for us! Silly wabbit.
70 North Main Street
South Norwalk, CT 06854