Bright Spot, Blossoming Location

ON a recent Saturday night, Épernay Bistro was encouragingly busy. It’s a very attractive place, with an appealing, workmanlike aesthetic that is appropriate for an urban bistro. Tables are bare of cloths and the room’s industrial roots — an exposed brick wall and ceiling ductwork — are undisguised.

Entrees at Épernay Bistro
include a sliced, spice-rubbed
flat iron steak, below, with
homemade French fries and
black truffle butter.

Judith Pszenica for The New York Times

The menu is small enough to fit on a single page: a collection of appetizers and a choice of six entrees, including two sandwiches. (This formal menu is augmented by daily specials; a line at the bottom tells us that, where possible, Épernay buys from local, organic growers and producers.)

With whimsical lighting, a comfortably cushioned lounge area and a great color scheme, Épernay manages to be elegant, casual and cozy, all at the same time.
Given the artful, urban design and the lively atmosphere, I’d have guessed I was someplace in New Haven, or maybe South Norwalk.

But Épernay Bistro is on Fairfield Avenue in Bridgeport. It is one of several restaurants that have recently opened in the city’s downtown area. Peter Wroe, the chef-owner, who named the restaurant after a major Champagne-producing region of France, has anchored the menu with French bistro favorites like charcuterie, French onion soup, steak frites and a winey, Provençal lamb stew. He has not, however, been constrained by this; there is also a pork chop Milanese, a pressed pork sandwich and lamb meatballs served over fettuccine.

There is a core of dishes that work very nicely here. Of the appetizers, the charcuterie plate is top notch, combining good quality Serrano ham, bresaola (air-dried beef), a pleasant, coarse-textured pâté (I would wish for a little more “oomph” in the seasoning) and a lovely French sausage, all appropriately thin-sliced.
A homey bowl of mushroom-scented chicken soup, a special that night, was filled with flavor as well as generous chunks of tender chicken. The smoked salmon salad offered a liberal amount of the fish, served on top of crème fraîche dressed greens, garnished with diced red onion and capers.

Of the entrees, my favorite was the crisp, breaded pork chop Milanese, served on the bone, with an arugula salad flecked with Parmesan. (It’s delicious and it’s smart: made with pork instead of veal, the dish is a mere $17.) The flat iron steak, served sliced, showcased that steak’s terrific flavor (although the homemade French fries should have been crisper). A fillet of escolar, served in a tomato-beurre blanc sauce, was beautifully cooked.

Other dishes need work, which is not surprising, given that the restaurant opened at the beginning of November. At my first meal there, the baby octopus on the grilled octopus salad was delicately tender, but desperate for seasoning, and the lamb stew and accompanying pasta was terribly undersalted, although the meat itself was nicely cooked.

At a later lunch, the food was correctly seasoned, but there were other omissions. Both the onion soup and the lamb meatballs (served over fettucine with a red-wine sauce) were lukewarm. And the meatballs, as well as the crouton covering the soup, were slightly burned.

The topping on an orange crème brûlée was too dark as well. But there are other desserts at Épernay that I can recommend. The chocolate pot de crème is a deliciously bitter chocolate custard, and leaner than usual, so that the accompanying whipped cream adds an agreeable opulence. Triangles of lemon bars, and coffee ice cream (served rather adorably in a takeout container) are equally good choices. A wedge of linzer torte, however, was a bit mushy, and I wished for more tartness in the fruit, the better to set off the sweet of the crust.

I hope that Bridgeport, benighted for so long by economic troubles, can support the new restaurants that are appearing here. After just four months, Épernay Bistro has made a good start. And with prices that are very competitive with restaurants farther south in Fairfield County, it is helping Bridgeport build a brighter image as a pretty good deal.

Épernay Bistro
272 Fairfield Avenue
(203) 334-3000

SPACE Bar and cushioned lounge area in the front; tables in the back. Well-executed, contemporary, industrial look (exposed brick and vents) softened by French posters and colorful, dangling light fixtures. Indoor parking garage next door. Wheelchair access.

THE CROWD: Casual.

THE BAR: Full bar, and very reasonable international wine list.
Wines by the glass: $5 to $10.

THE BILL: Entrees, $10 to $25.

WHAT WE LIKE: Grilled octopus salad, smoked salmon salad, charcuterie assortment; pork chop Milanese, steak frites, escolar with tomato beurre blanc; lemon bars, chocolate pot de crème, coffee ice cream.

IF YOU GO:  Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Saturday, 4:30 p.m. to midnight. Reservations recommended.
Reviewed March 8, 2009