Jane Stern discovers the delicious Cafe Dolce in Norwalk
Updated 6:17 pm, Thursday, September 7, 2017
The old adage goes “always save the best for last.” I have always been a rule bender so allow me to offer “the best for first.” This being my first weekly food column I happily present to you: Cafe Dolce.
Norbert Duda and Zoltan Bona, two longtime friends, met at culinary school in Hungary. Their goal was to open a small café in The United States and happily they did, in Norwalk.
Cafe Dolce is overwhelming to walk into. My eyes feel like pinballs because as soon as I glance at one thing I am drawn to another. On display is a panoply of exotic cakes, breads, strudels, cheese Danishes, poppy seed roll-ups and bags of hand-selected coffee beans. One could go happily crazy here.
There is no printed menu at Cafe Dolce. What is available is displayed in the glass cases or written on a dry erase board updated daily. Once you have found a seat at one of the long rustic communal tables you walk up to the counter and order. When your food is ready one of the staff brings your meal to the table. Cafe Dolce is both a full-service restaurant and a corner coffee shop. You can order a single cup of coffee or everything on the menu. I tend to favor the latter.
As a longtime food reviewer people often ask me how to tell quickly if a place is worth eating at. I tell them to look at the pies or cakes on display. If the pies have hand-crimped crusts, if the cookies are slightly irregular in shape, if the selection is big, but not too big, it is highly likely that what you see is handmade and the place is worth a try.
Here at Cafe Dolce you will not find granny in the kitchen making her cupcakes and brownies, instead there is Bona. Finding him manning the ovens in a small coffee shop in Norwalk is like finding Einstein teaching physics at the local high school. To put this miracle of local luck in context be aware that Bona won the Hungarian National Championship in 1992 for “sugar pulling” (a most demanding culinary art) and followed this victory with a bronze medal at the Culinary Olympics in Germany. In short, a master of the craft of pastries makes the food here.
345 Main Ave., Norwalk
Cafe Dolce’s signature item is the Dobos Cake. If you want to pronounce it like a Hungarian say “dobosh.” A Dobos Cake is seven-layer wonder of sponge cake and chocolate frosting with a large triangle of orange caramelized sugar on top. It is a showstopper and it could be argued that it is the most iconic of all Hungarian desserts. It’s lineage dates back to Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1885 for whom it was originally made.
Bona’s other jaw-dropping pastries include a Dolce Cake; it is redolent of orange liqueur, ground walnuts and fragrant cinnamon. It is unique and worth the calories. Apple strudel is encased in a blanket of fragile layers of dough that surrender at the first touch of the fork.
Hungarian Somloi is another complicated pastry composed of vanilla and chocolate custards, micro thin layers of sponge cake finely chopped raisins and ground walnuts after which the whole assembled cake is gently brushed with a slurry of black coffee and rum.
Every single item at Cafe Dolce is made from scratch, by hand. Bakeries like this are usually found in the posh neighborhoods of Paris, Rome or Budapest, not on busy Route 7 in Norwalk.
Because I am a dessert freak it would be easy to read this review and think Cafe Dolce is simply a bakery. It isn’t, not by a long shot. While the pastries are available on a more consistent basis, the soups, salads, crepes and pastas rotate daily and are every bit as wonderful as the sweet stuff.
The crepes are paper thin and made when ordered. Among the selections are both sweet and savory versions. My choice for a dessert crepe is the one oozing apricot jam and chocolate/hazelnut Nutella spread. For the savory one I like the traditional middle European crepe with farmer cheese and poppy seeds.
An order of Chicken Milanese consisted of two beautifully breaded and fried cutlets topped with a hill of crisp lightly dressed salad greens. The mushroom raviolis were possibly the best pasta I have ever tasted (yes, even in Rome). The complex filling sent off like tiny fireworks in the mouth, the dough and sauces both masterful. Duda and Bona have a flair for Italian dishes and you will not go wrong ordering any of them.
Let me share with you another thing restaurant reviewers are strict about. To me the biggest bummer is when your server disappears after your food is served and stays away. Imagine you have dropped your fork on the ground and as your hot meal grows cold you call out for the waitperson, wave your hands madly about and no one sees you. I have never seen this happen at Cafe Dolce. I truly believe that Duda and Bona are clones, and that there are four or five of each of them. If not, how is one to explain that they seem to be everywhere at all times? You look up and there is Duda surveying the dining room, then he is behind the pastries, then he is outside looking in on the restaurant. Same with Bona. I like the idea of clones, but having been in the restaurant reviewing business for some time I know the real answer.
A great restaurant big or small needs someone in charge, keeping an eagle eye out on everything all the time. The trick is to do it subtly; the customer must not feel he or she is being watched or stared at. But at the swivel of a customer’s head looking for the dropped fork or wanting to change an order, it should be that someone appears by your side and solves the problem.
In New York City in the 1970s, two legendary four-star restaurants (The Four Seasons and Cafe des Artiste) were lauded for the perfection of the food and for the discreet yet seamless service. Hungarians ran both. It must be genetic. There are no coincidences.
Jane Stern, a Ridgefield resident, coauthored the popular “Roadfood” guidebook series with Michael Stern. Join her each week as she travels Fairfield County finding great meals in unexpected places for $20 or less.