The Watch Factory Restaurant

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Review – New York Times | Dining Out; Lunches that Please the Eye Too

WHERE can you go for a good but inexpensive lunch? If you are in Darien, the answer is easy: The Gourmet Table.

This attractive little restaurant, which calls itself more aptly a cafe and patisserie (and also does catering), wisely limits itself to a handful of dishes and masters them flawlessly. How refreshing to find food with the intensity of market-fresh, natural components and dishes made without shortcutting on the best ingredients. Taste tells.

While you can drop by The Gourmet Table for oven-fresh blueberry muffins and an omelet at breakfast time (lucky Noroton Heights commuters have only to walk across the road), the best time to come is for lunch.

You will find a blackboard menu near the entrance listing three entrees, a soup and quiche of the day, two or three salads and the same number of desserts. Everything except the bread-like croissants used with the salads for sandwiches is made on the premises. The Austrian chef-owner, Markus Patsch, knows precisely what he is doing and does it expertly. The menu changes frequently, but judging by our experiences, you will not go wrong no matter what you order.

Even that lunchtime standby, shrimp salad, is done with flair and a distinctive, personal touch. Baby shrimp with real flavor are combined with fresh dill and slices of Belgian endive.

Here are a few of the excellent dishes encountered in recent visits. Scallop mousse was incredibly feathery and cloud-like in texture, with a delicate flavor enhanced by a piece of smoked salmon and a buttery cream sauce with a hint of dill. Served with the mousse was a bundle of carrots, celery and scallions that was pretty and tasty.

Each plate is a picture, but unlike many nouvelle cuisine offerings, in which the look is everything, here the appearance is reinforced by expert preparation. For instance, lightly sauteed sole (dipped in an egg batter) in a homemade, fresh tomato coulis, redolent with basil, looked appetizing and was also top quality.

Two of us split an entree of baked goat cheese as a starter, and it was generous enough to have made two entrees. Two golden-brown cheese rounds in a perfectly balanced raspberry vinaigrette were served with endive, a few other greens, fresh pear slices and cherries. It was just enough and the taste of every ingredient sang out loud and clear. Another entree, warm chicken breast, arrived in a well-made vinaigrette, with sauteed mushrooms and pecan halves. Three miniature carrots and snowpeas completed the plate.

The quiches at The Gourmet Table are so good, so light and custardy, they might even restore quiche’s good name again. A ham and spinach quiche was especially notable. Cream of broccoli soup, the only soup we tried, was subtle and delicious.

Desserts are few, but superb. Chocolate mousse, another tired tale too frequently, is a delightful new experience here: Picture two deep, richly chocolate ”eggs” resting in a pool of whipped cream sauce with a swirl of raspberry puree around a single fresh raspberry. Creme caramel -smooth, creamy perfection – was one of the best encountered in a long time. Apple tart, glazed tatin-like, relied on good, crisp apples with a little ”bite.” Brownies in almond sauce were not the brownies every American child knows, but soft, mousse-like slices of rich chocolate in a subtle almond sauce that hinted of anise.

The Gourmet Table is so first-rate, you have to search for nits. We have just two. One is using wine glasses for iced tea. While it looks attractive, the serving is small for the $1 tariff. The other relates to service, which is businesslike, but can be slow. It suggests that social, rather than business lunching is the norm here. Even announcing on arrival that you are in a hurry does not seem to change the tempo of dishes emerging from the kitchen.

So often, a diner who is also a cook experiences frustration eating out, wondering, ”Why should I pay these prices for something I do better myself at home?” For that expert diner, The Gourmet Table should prove a happy find. Its standards are tough enough for the most fastidious cook. The cafe serves a modest range of fairly priced wine and beers, also afternoon tea and cakes. The Gourmet Table ** Noroton Heights Shopping Center, opposite Noroton Heights railroad station, Darien. 656-1994.

Review by PATRICIA BROOKS, published on NYTIMES.COM – 08/17/86