Arriving late for a dinner reservation at The Wheel — the signature restaurant of The Village, the new premium waterfront development in Stamford, featured in last month’s WAG — I make my way from the host stand to where my party is already seated on the deck. En route, at least two groups of people try to attract my attention. One guy snaps his fingers a little alarmingly while another, if I’m not mistaken, asks me for a Bloody Mary. And only when I’m sitting down does the penny drop: It’s a case of mistaken identity. Dressed for a summer’s evening in my mid-blue navy Polo shirt, blue jeans and Converse sneakers, I’m wearing exactly the same “uniform” as the restaurant’s wait-staff.
So far, so bizarre. But I sense that things will improve. Inside, the restaurant’s design is sophisticated urban chic, with tiled floors and walls, velour-covered booths and oriental birdcage lampshades. The space looks fresh and inviting. Out on the deck, with its gorgeous view across the Czecik Marina toward Stamford Harbor, I’m immediately transported to a kind of maritime Arcadia on this perfect summer’s evening. The odd barge or day boat glides lazily by and sunbeams dance off the water in a scene that, it’s not too fanciful to say, Claude Monet would have found hard to resist.
Ah yes, I hear you say, that’s all very poetic, but what about the food, with ingredients and produce from more than 40 local farmers, fishermen and purveyors, which the restaurant has been trumpeting in its preopening publicity?
Well, I will get to that. But first, cocktails. We start off, or intend to start off, with Andalusian G&Ts (gin and tonics) and a Tommy’s margarita, an order that our very sweet server — a young-Goldie Hawn doppelgänger and nice as pie — promptly forgets to put through. (When they’re finally brought, two-thirds of the way into our appetizers and after a couple of reminders, they’re carefully mixed and refreshingly delicious, although for the life of me I can’t see what makes the G&T — with its English Tanqueray gin, English Fever Tree tonic and Sri Lankan kaffir lime — remotely “Andalusian.”
But let’s move on swiftly to starters of Spring Rocks Farm Wagyu meatballs, deep-flavored beef from Vermont, served with creamy “Maine grains” polenta and aged Parmesan; and Blooming Mushrooms, a moreish dish of Seacoast (Connecticut) mushrooms and summer Hen of the Woods, a late summer variety as blousy as a full-blown peony.
Local enough? It’s certainly looking that way. In a shared summer chopped salad, the tomatoes come from Hepworth Farms in Milton, New York, and the charred corn, I’m informed, hails from New Jersey. The radishes and cucumber — as local as vegetables get — are from The Village’s own rooftop kitchen garden.
Yet more tomatoes, “Eli’s and Ali’s,” grown in Brooklyn, are luscious and full-on summery, all shades of red and yellow. They accompany a main course grill of Big Eye tuna paillard, served with home-grown basil and anointed with a drop of extra virgin olive oil. It’s a deceptively simple dish, this tuna, rich in umami. And The Wheelhouse burger, made from top-grade Joyce Farms grass-fed beef and served on a seeded brioche bun, ticks all the burger boxes for flavour and texture.
Of course, there’s no point in jumping on the local, seasonal bandwagon unless your ingredients taste out of the ordinary. Here at The Wheel, they really do. In my book, tomatoes that actually taste of tomato are always worth going out of your way for, as is all produce, fish, meat and poultry, that has been grown or raised with real integrity and know-how.
But The Wheel isn’t “fancy,” not by any means. Wedged between the main dishes and the grills are pizzas, though there are mercifully few toppings to choose from. Personally, I would look no further than a classic Margherita, made here with authentic San Marzano tomatoes and ambrosial Brooklyn-produced Lioni mozzarella, the food of the gods.
Desserts, meanwhile, are the elegant work of pastry chef Alessandra Altieri Lopez, who has previously worked at Per Se and Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery. She does a pistachio New York cheesecake that combines extraordinary substance with almost ethereal lightness, and her ice cream sundae with salted caramel ice cream and Manjari chocolate hot fudge — poured at the table from a little jug — is so delicious you feel there should be some local bylaw against it.
Some idiosyncratic New World wines, along with some more predicable Old World labels, pepper the wine list, and a large selection of locally brewed craft beers are available on tap. And returning to The Wheel’s cocktail program, it is led by Kyle Tran, whose résumé includes time spent with The Aviary in Chicago and the Alinea Group in New York. (When, on an earlier visit to The Wheel, I had made a glib comment at the bar about Pusser’s rum and how it had been responsible for the near demise of the British Navy, it was the well-informed Tran who put me right, as he elaborated on the daily rum ration traditionally supplied to British sailors.)
Of course, nobody gets it all right and service at The Wheel, while perfectly good-natured, can be a little squeaky. Plates and glasses were slammed down by one particular server with all the force, but little of the grace, of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in a Mahler symphony, and dishes were constantly “auctioned” — as in, “who’s having what?” — as they were brought to the table.
But it’s a small price to pay for a dinner that is exactingly sourced, imaginatively prepared and served in thoroughly congenial surroundings. And as for the claims of “organic” and “farm-to-table” fare, for once those words are more than just fashionable epithets. They are a true and fair description of the food at Stamford’s new and rather wonderful Wheel, a restaurant that, still in its early days, is worthy of your serious attention.
For more, visit thevillagewheel.com.