Martel offers the ambiance of a bistro in France
By Rita Papazian
Posted: 04/10/2009

Marty Levine expressed a little surprise recently by how quickly his new restaurant Martel took on the ambiance of a long-established neighborhood café. People have been coming into the bar and dining room, waving to friends and sharing a few moments of conversation with familiar faces. That's the kind of ambiance Levine had hoped his new bistro would create, but he's a little amazed how quickly it has taken hold. 

For the passing observer, the signs that Martel would quickly find its niche on the local restaurant landscape is obvious. First, consider its location at 2316 Post Road, directly across from Sasco Hill Road. With ample parking just off the street, the restaurant sits on the site of two previous restaurants; Rory's and Breakaway, the latter restaurant Levine had opened in 1980. He then sold the business seven years later to new owners who ran it until 1999 when Levine leased the building to new restaurateurs, who opened Rory's. Meanwhile, Levine opened Pane Vino on the Post Road in Westport with his chef, Olivier Crosby. The dynamic duo built up a fine reputation in the business for a dozen years and then Levine decided to close that restaurant, renovate the Fairfield site and open a new place that would offerthe atmosphere and a unique menu reminiscent of the cafes that line the streets of Paris.

"This has that feeling of a French bistro," said Levine, describing the warmth, comfort and European-American food from a menu that offers quality, yet affordable food.

The rich, dark woods of the interior offer a marked structural design that welcomes patrons from the moment they open the front door and immediately step into the bar. From there, patrons can walk through a pair of elegantly etched glass and wood room dividers separating the bar area from the dining room. The architectural design of the interior at once offers a separation, yet easy flow between the bar and the dining room. In total, Martel can accommodate 62 patrons.

The interior features, which include a marble floor in the bar area and a hickory wood floor in the dining room, are complemented with a high tin ceiling, the materials of which were well researched. Levine noted it was very important that the restaurant strike just the right balance in terms of sound. He did not want the sound to be so loud that people could not hear each other in conversation; yet, it was important to have the kind of sound that contributes to an atmosphere where diners feel comfortably engaged in conversation as they dine.

Crosby said, "There's a certain chatter to a restaurant that you want. Restaurant noise can be a beautiful thing."

"But, not to the point where you can't hear," Levine said.

Both Levine and Crosby explain that when creating the Martel menu, it was not a function of price, but value.

"We hope to be known as a place where people can go for a three-course romantic dinner or where people can go after a movie for a salad or dessert, or maybe just pop in for a sandwich," Levine said.

"We trying to make it as uncomplicated and as accessible as possible," he said.

While Crosby's objective was to re-create a French bistro through food, he realizes that patrons love their traditional American food.

Each menu category -- appetizers, salads, sandwiches, sides and entrees-- reflect both cultures. For example, among the appetizers are Onion Soup Gratinee, Cheese Fondue and Steamed Little Neck Clams. Salads range from a Frisee with poached egg, warm bacon and vinaigrette to a Classic Caesar. The sandwich selections offer Warm King Crab Roll, Hamburger, Tuna Burger and a Sliced Lamb with eggplant, red onion, parmesan on grilled ciabatta roll. Side selections include Mixed Grilled Vegetables, Red Mashed Potatoes, Sauteed Broccoli Rabe, and Potato and Bacon Gratin, among others.

Crosby's talents as a chef are evident in the entrée selections. These include Bistro Steak Frites, Chicken Riesling, Grilled Lamb Chops, Martel Meat Loaf, Duck Shephard's Pie, Truffled Macaroni and Cheese, plus a vast selection of fish entrees, including scallops, sole, cod, salmon and lobster.

The chef brings many years of experience to his role at Martel where he is assisted in the kitchen with a familiar and experienced staff because everyone previously worked with Levine and Crosby at Pane Vino. A graduate of the Culinary Institute at Hyde Park, N.Y., Crosby has an extensive resume in the food industry representing restaurants in California, Nantucket, Switzerland and France.

Much of the decision-making that went into renovating the building, designing the interior and creating the menu is based upon both Levine's and Crosby's love for France, where both have spent much time. Levine and his mother Joan, own a 15th-century house in a 12th-century village.

During a brief visit to her son's restaurant, Joan emphasized the picture-perfect countryside of the village of Turene, in the southwest of France, which has contributed to her son's love for the country and interest in capturing some of France's ambiance with his own restaurant.

When asked what she thought about her son's new restaurant, she said, "It's lovely. He did a fabulous job. It has that very cozy feeling. The food is not pretentious. It's an American-French bistro. You feel comfortable here." She described her son as very dedicated to his work. "I think it's his integrity. He wants to do it better all the time."

Levine's integrity is evident in the art work he has selected for the interior, which are the paintings of former Westport resident and Staples High School graduate Robyn Whitney Fairclough, who now paints from her studio in Woodstock, Vermont. Her paintings grace the walls in the bar area and dining room adding vivid colors of bright yellow, blue, red and orange to complement the dark woods of the furniture and madeira upholstery.

In a telephone interview, Fairclough, a former free-lance floral designer, expressed her gratitude to Levine, a personal friend, for giving her paintings exposure in the restaurant. The subjects in her paintings on display vary from still life to self-portraits with two of her three children.

In describing her paintings, Fairclough said they are "expressionistic" as she works with the colors, often not knowing how the painting will turn out until she works the process through to completion. "The journey determines the outcome," she said.

Bruno Recouvrer, bar manager, spoke enthusiastically about the new restaurant and his position. He said he was quite happy with the response to the restaurant in just the few weeks of its opening. "How could you not be happy when you think about the financial times, and we're doing great?"

Incidentally, according to the restaurant's Web site, Martel takes it name from the picturesque town of Martel in the Dordogne region of France, near where the Levines have their home Located at the intersection of trading routes between Paris and Toulouse in one direction and a key east-west route for the trade of salt and wine in the other, this pastoral village has long been a stopping point where weary travelers could refresh themselves. Judging by the patronage in its first month, Martel exemplifies what Levine had hoped when he said, "We wanted people to experience the exuberance of a bistro."

The restaurant is open for dinner and come early May will be extending hours to include lunch and shortly after Sunday brunch. Martel's bar opens at 4 p.m. with dinner served from 5 to 10:30 p.m. seven days a week. For more information, call 292-6916.