Let’s just put it out there now…we haven’t had the best of luck with celebrity chef restaurants over the past few years, with the exception of Gordon Ramsay’s Maze and Michael Psilakis’s Kefi both in NYC. More often than not we’ve had disappointing meals like our experience at the recently closed Primary Food & Drink by Graham Elliot and at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in Las Vegas. We’ve found that a celebrity chef putting his or her stamp on a restaurant and menu doesn’t guarantee anything. So, you’ll have to forgive our skepticism when Aarón Sánchez made plans to open up Paloma in the Harbor Point area of Stamford (where The Beer Garden used to be). Would Chef Sanchez, from Chopped and Cooking Channel’s Heat Seekers (with partner in crime Roger Mooking), be a rare exception?
Well, you better believe we wanted to find out ASAP. We just so happened to see an ambiguous announcement on Harbor Point’s Facebook page Saturday evening so we made a bee-line for Harbor Point to see if it was really open. To our delight it was a soft opening and we were lucky enough to get a table. SCORE! So, let’s get down to biz-natch…
When you enter, the first thing you see is the beautiful open kitchen highlighted with an aromatic wood-fired grill that is bound to have some Double Cut Pork Chops and Tomahawk Steaks on it. And, if your timing is right, you just might see Aarón in the kitchen like we did (and he was even nice enough to get a picture with us in the kitchen). Off to the side of the kitchen is the bar area that just might become your favorite new place to get drinks…more on that soon. And, there are plenty of rustic tables and chairs to fill up the rest of the place, plus a good number of tables outside so you can soak up the fresh Sound air.
In terms of the menu, it’s like a culinary tour through Central America, over to the Carribean, and back on down to South America, with some dishes showcasing Aarón’s grandmother’s authentic Mexican recipes. The menu is separated into a Raw Bar Section, Botanas (Small Plates), Entrees, Large Share Plates, Simple Grill (you pick the meat and sauce), and Sides. And, just as expansive is the cocktail menu that’s also divided into sections like The Paloma (their signature drink gets its own section), Featured Libations, Summer Tails, Classicos, and Amigos. Sickest thing about the cocktails? They are precisely measured out and served on tap (yes, on tap) so that every drink is scientifically perfect! Added bonus? Because they’re on tap you can get your drink on even quicker. Extra added bonus? The water used in the cocktails is super-filtered through an intricate system that runs throughout Paloma. If cocktails aren’t your thing (but how could they not be after that description?) then you can also check out their beer and wine menu along with some fresh made nonalcoholic choices.
Let’s get into the cocktails.
Dan started with Bee’s + Honey ($13), made with raw honey and lemon, ginger-tumeric nectar, el buho mescal, and maker’s mark bourbon. It came with big cubes to prevent dilution and nice strips of pickled ginger. Without a doubt, this was our favorite drink of the night for the mix of smoky mescal and bourbon along with the exotic flavors coming from the ginger and turmeric. So refreshing, so great. Kristien had ordered a Menage a Trois ($13) (the drink, get your mind out of the gutter), with muddled, tinctured, and nectarized strawberries along with tres agaves reposed tequila, lime, and basil. Although she thought it was good, it ended up being too sweet for her, so she went onto Bee’s + Honey for the rest of the night, which she claimed the best Bourbon drink she can remember ever having. Later in the night Dan tried one of the Amigos cocktails: the selection of cocktails made by world class mixologists who have literally written the book on drinks. The one Dan ordered, Golden Age ($13), was from Duggan McDonnell of Cantina and featured Rhum JM Silver Agricole rum, maraschino liquor, sweet vermouth, and orange and peach bitters. Dan liked it, but it’s definitely a liquor lover’s drink with lots of kick. After that Dan tried the Eden ($14) which included green apple, lime, cilantro, del maguay ‘vida’ mescal, and chile tinter with a hops spritz. It was nicely balanced, herbaceous, light, refreshing, and had just the right amount of sweet peeking through. Ok ok, now the food!
Our server Joanna and staff trainer/server Cristiano told us their favorite dishes, including a dish that wasn’t even on the menu yet. Having spent lots of meals with Cristiano when he was at Bacchus and The Spread, we knew to go with his recommendations, and Joanna seemed trustworthy so we forged on ahead.
Guacamole ($10): There was a slight spiciness at the end that brought tiny tingles to the tounge. There was a good mix of creamy and chunky avocado, too, which we love. It also featured the lime and cilantro flavors you come to expect in a good guac. And, it was served with fresh, thick, and crispy tortilla chips so you could dig down deep. Solid. Paella Fritters: squid, shrimp, and rice with a saffron aioli. The fritters were a nice golden brown and crispy on the outside. When you bite down you immediately fall in love with the moist, sticky, delicious rice and the fantastic kick of typical paella flavors, not to mention the finely chopped seafood. This is a DEFINITE must-order, assuming they have it on special again or add it to the regular menu (which they SOOOO need to do). Hamachi Tiradito ($16): yellowtail sashimi, ahi rocoto sauce, crispy hominy. This dish is a complete 3D tasting experience. Flavors go from earthy, to tangy, to fruity, to spicy while the textures go from delicate, to crunchy with the hominy croutons. Without a doubt, this bright and citrusy raw fish dish was one of our favorites of the night. Perfect for a warm summer night. Crispy Sweetbreads ($15): bacon tamarind, foie gras, pickled jalapeño. We’ve been playing the waiting game with sweetbreads…mainly waiting for a chef who could transform this intimidating ingredient into something amazing. So, we ordered a dish and they came out in a beautifully rich brown sauce. And, while the sauce added flavor to the dish, the sweetbread itself lacked flavor or excitement for us. Just kind of “meh.” Empanadas ($12): These came out with just the right amount of pastry dough on the outside and just the right amount of filling on the inside. Speaking of the stuffing, it was smoky and earthy from the chorizo with an underlying sweetness from the plantains. Also, served on top was some Mexican cheese, adding a nice creaminess to the dish. Bringing it all together was a mole dipping sauce which was rich, slightly sweet and deliciously savory. Grilled Octopus ($15): wax beans, salsa verde, frisee. It’s hard for Dan to resist octopus when it’s on the menu, so dinner at Paloma was no different. The tentacles were perfectly grilled. Very delicate, yet sporting that nice char on the outside. It was served with a bright and citrusy salad that helped cleanse the palate and wake up those tastebuds. We also enjoyed the small slices of peppers on top that brought a nice heat. Churros: Chef Sanchez served these different than you’re probably used to. They were fried up in pinwheel-like balls, stuffed with perfectly warm and sweet dulce de leche. The outside remained crispy and golden, while the inside stayed puffy and moist and the Mexican crema dipping sauce was so rich and creamy we could’ve licked the ramekin.
Final Thoughts: Despite not enjoying the sweetbreads, we enjoyed all our other dishes. And, we took note of all the dishes that we still wanted to try like the Tomahawk Steak, Pollo Pibil, and Braised Short Ribs. The food is competitively priced in terms of nicer restaurants here in CT, but remember, they’re small plates so don’t go expecting big portions…the point is to order many. We like it better that way. The cocktails, though, are on the expensive side, anywhere from $10-$15 for smaller than normal glasses. They are very high-quality and delicious though, so you might see them as worth the splurge. Now, getting back to our original questions at the start of the post: would this be another not-so-good celebrity chef restaurant created just to lure people in? Based on our experience, we’d have to say no…the food we had was creative, flavorful, and well-prepared. Of course Chef Aarón Sánchez was there policing the kitchen, so we’d like to go back on a normal day to see if there is consistency. And, we’d like to also try the simpler grill items, which we heard from a reader were so-so. Because of that, we will wait to offer up a Nom rating until a revisit. For now, we can say that that service was quick, helpful, and knowledgeable and the food exceeded our expectations.
Paloma Noms: TBD
Address: 15 Harbor Point Road, Stamford, CT
Phone: (203) 998-7500