SOUTH NORWALK, Conn. -- What a difference a decade can make. When Matthew Storch was a teenager growing up in nearby Westport, grungy South Norwalk "was where you went to sneak into the bars under age," he told us. The decaying harbor village where the Norwalk River meets Long Island Sound was the kind of place your parents warned you against.
Today, the South Norwalk Historic District goes by the hip moniker "SoNo." And Storch -- a veteran of Olives in Charlestown as well as other Todd English ventures in Westport and in Aspen, Colo. -- is executive chef at Match, one of the hottest restaurants in a sizzling six-block dining and night-life district.
In some ways SoNo (a sliver of the 27-square-mile Manhattan bedroom city of Norwalk) resembles many former industrial communities in New England. Brick Beaux-Arts warehouse and factory buildings line narrow Colonial-era streets -- but that solid backbeat is just the foundation for a different kind of jazz that plays out on SoNo's sidewalks. The neighborhood seems to sway to a Latin rhythm, a cultural overlay we first noticed one morning as Town and Country mothers with baby strollers practiced their salsa steps to the background music in the lobby of the Norwalk Maritime Aquarium.
The most conventional attraction in this otherwise unconventional village, the aquarium opened in 1988 on North Water Street as a tourism anchor to jump-start the makeover of South Norwalk into SoNo. By intention or coincidence, it also provides something besides shopping to keep visitors busy until the streets light up at night.
Sited on the banks of the tidal Norwalk River, the aquarium focuses on Long Island Sound. By their nature, aquariums are earnest places with the mission of instilling environmental awareness and appreciation. But the Maritime Aquarium yokes didacticism and spectacle whenever possible.
Children sidle up to "pet" the muscular, jelly-slippery rays in a low-walled pool. ("They feel like a wet Gummi Bear," says volunteer guide Woody Hartshorn.) Nasty, dead-eyed sharks prowl the waters of a simulated ocean, and gargantuan loggerhead turtles nuzzle their beaks against the plate-glass portals of a deep tank.
The most important creature in Long Island Sound, at least from a gastronomic point of view, is the blue point oyster. As the aquarium points out, nearly perfect growing conditions -- a sandy bottom, brackish water, and islands to shield the bivalves from rough waves -- have made South Norwalk a big oyster harvesting center since Native American times. Between 1870 and 1890, Norwalk accounted for three-quarters of the American oyster exports to Europe as well as a substantial portion of the domestic supply. Industrial pollution and overfishing nearly wiped out the industry in the early 20th century, but environmental controls and careful management of seeded beds now yield an annual harvest worth around $40 million. (Unfortunately, the aquarium's cafe doesn't have a raw bar.)
The gritty industry was just the sort of thing that appealed to the artists of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. The large mural hanging in the aquarium, "Oyster Shuckers," is just one in a series commissioned from Norwalk artist Alexander J. Rummler in the late 1930s.
One block away, on the corner of North Main and Marshall streets, the Norwalk Museum displays some of the photographs and sketches that Rummler made as he prepared to paint the murals. SoNo tends to be more focused on what's happening tonight than what happened yesterday, but this local history museum, which occupies the 1912 Colonial Revival former city hall, recollects the civic past. Along with displays about the oystering industry are cases devoted to Raggedy Ann creator Johnny Gruelle, works by the members of Norwalk's early 20th-century Silvermine art colony, and examples of the Norwalk redware pottery so prized by collectors. A re-created street scene of shop windows evokes the city's commercial life in its busiest era, 1850-1950.
Norwalk's 15 minutes of fame occurred during the Revolution. "Well, you're from Boston," Linda Hayes said as we chatted in the museum shop. "But how many New England towns were the site of a Revolutionary War battle?" Hayes is director of the scheduled (July 10-12) reenactment of Norwalk's destruction by the redcoats in 1779. "The British sailed in on whale boats," she said. "There was a protracted battle along Washington Street. They fought house to house." According to Hayes, the British burned the whole town, first torching the building at the foot of Washington Street where Jeremiah Donovan's stands today.
Established in 1889 and built of sturdy red brick, Donovan's is SoNo's most recognizable relic of shadier days. Faded black and white glossies of boxers line one wall, and though the saloon serves green salads and other such "unmanly" uncheon fare at cute colonial tables behind the big plate glass windows, the waterfront beers-and-shots ambience persists at the old wooden bar.
Washington Street proceeds from the waterfront as the backbone of SoNo's commercial district. The area has the countenance of a small-town retail center, but this isn't a place to buy aspirin or door hinges. Although a Dollar Store stands across the street from a movie house turned digital production studio, most of SoNo's idiosyncratic shops deal chiefly in indulgences. The bath and home store, & Company, brims with the sort of comforts that are hard to justify as necessities: 550-thread-count linens, Hungarian white goose down pillows, Kama Sutra Massage Cream.
Only a few doors down, Saga, Arts of the Americas lends a little decorating support to the Latin sounds of SoNo with a selection of pottery, jewelry, furniture, and folk art drawn principally from the Southwest and Mexico. Shacojazz Art Cafe taps an Afro-Caribbean vein for ethnic gifts, specializing in tribal art, ethnic dolls and angel figures, and African clothing. Just reopened in mid-December, its small cafe also serves such island flavors as curried goat, sweet potato pie, and ginger beer.
Jewelry artist Jaydee Perry, who runs Perry-Matto Gallery, also trolls the world for design, creating reproduction jewelry (Greek gold work of 300 BC, for example). Her shop is filled with curiosities that range from crystal vases and perfume bottles to Russian icons and Balinese puppets. Self-proclaimed "garden outfitter" Villa Ceramica specializes in the simple vases that florists use, but the open metal shelving of the warehouse shop is filled with tableware as well, much of it hand-painted in Portugal.
The International Cigar Factory Outlet, a leading purveyor of stogies through mail order and the Web, keeps a brick-and-mortar store just off Water Street. It might be cold and dry on the street, but the shop is as temperate and moist as a humidor. Prices are reasonable, too: $95 for a box of 25 Romeo y Julieta Churchills, for example.
It's not unusual to find folks enjoying one of those cigars at the smoke-friendly Loft, home of what the Food Network calls the country's best chocolate martini. The concoction of Smirnoff vodka, a splash of Godiva chocolate liqueur, and white creme de cacao is served in a glass drizzled with Hershey's chocolate syrup and rimmed with cocoa. The effect is Willie Wonka meets Joe Frazier -- sweet but packing a punch. The after-work martini crowd gives way to a younger, more athletic vibe as the evening wears on at The Loft. The throbbing beat and gyrating bodies emphasize just how well suited SoNo's old high-ceilinged warehouse and industrial buildings are to makeovers as dramatic night-life spaces. Practically across the street, Liquid occupies a similar building, packing in the young singles with distinctly Latin grooves.
Music for listening, as opposed to dancing, can be found in the singer-songwriter sets at the very hip coffee and chocolate house, Caffeine, or the Thursday night blues and Friday rock (including a good dose of Latin rock) at the Brewhouse, where a huge range of brews on tap compensates for the fact that this once very successful brewpub no longer boils its own wort.
Not that a night of music and a night of dining are necessarily mutually exclusive, but we're just as happy devoting the hours to a great meal -- a commodity in plentiful supply in South Norwalk. Match was an upscale pizza joint when Matthew Storch came on board, and he's put his Todd English lessons to work to make the open-hearth wood-burning oven earn its keep producing fire-kissed entrees. It's easy to make a filling meal just from the appetizer menu, starting with Storch's seared wasabi and sesame rubbed tuna (served with a tiny coconut sticky rice cake) before tucking into the healthy house pizza (caramelized onion, mozzarella, and plum tomatoes topped by a balsamic dressed arugula and fresh tomato salad). Trained at the Culinary Institute of America, Storch also has a delicate touch with pastas. His handmade butternut squash agnolotti are perfectly seasoned with butter, sage, parmesan, amoretti cookie crumbs, and just a touch of cinnamon.
Since Marc Lippman took over the kitchen at Ocean Drive in the fall, he has transformed the menu at this sleek, South-Beach-inspired grill to carefully composed dishes that show off each kind of seafood at its best. Chatham cod, for example, is poached in an herb broth and served with littleneck clams and cauliflower puree, while oven-roasted wild striped bass comes with a fennel confit, sweet oven-dried tomato slices, and a bouillabaisse sauce.
But the biggest draw at Ocean Drive is still the oyster bar, which always features at least three choices of "oysters of the world." Commenting on our soft spot for Wellfleet blue points, managing partner John Anstis laughed. "They're OK if you like pint-sized little guys that can't stand up to sauce." By way of comparison, he held up a nearly perfectly round oyster on the half shell. "The best oysters in the world," he said, "are harvested right here in Long Island Sound."
Cambridge-based writers Patricia Harris and David Lyon are the authors of the "Food Lovers' Guide to Massachusetts" (Globe Pequot Press, 2003).