Saray Ruiz saw something in the little house-like building off Route 37. The one with the small parking lot and everyday architecture. The one others drove by thousands of times without a second glance.
"I'm going to open a restaurant there one day," she'd tell her twin sister, Noemi Ruiz, and anyone else who would listen to her dream. "It's not going to happen," Noemi would say.
At the time, a few years back, the spot was home to a Mexican restaurant. Saray had a feeling that would change and thought the cozy spot could host a restaurant inspired by her childhood in Lleida, a small town in the Catalonia region of Spain, within driving distance of Barcelona. This past fall, when she and her once-skeptical twin opened Gaudí Tapas and Wine, her dream became a reality.
And what a dream it is.
For the restaurant, the Ruiz sisters recruited chef Juan Flores, whose experience includes working for celebrated Connecticut chef Arturo Franco-Camacho at Shell & Bones in New Haven. Flores’ ambition is to earn a coveted Michelin star, and after one eats here, it is clear he has the skills to make that goal laudable rather than laughable. He’s joined in the kitchen by his brother, Óscar Flores, who handles desserts and worked under Michelin-starred chef Luis Bollo. Together they have created a diverse, tapas-centered menu ranging from cold and hot to seafood and meat. We loved everything we tried, but would order all new dishes next visit because the place encourages culinary explorations.
The talents of the Flores brothers in the kitchen combined with the enthusiasm of the Ruiz sisters have turned Gaudí into a destination, and one that, like the best restaurants, provides a great meal but also something more.
“We try to put our soul and our personality into the restaurant,” Noemi says. “Lots of people that come in say that it’s really different, and they feel like they are in another country. That’s actually what we try to do, to give people an opportunity to have an experience that is not only culinary but you get a cultural experience as well.”
The truth of this statement is literally pounded home to us when a flamenco dancer arrives unexpectedly sometime between our third and fourth course. In the center of the dining room, she twirls and spins, her arms and legs a blur as she accents the beat with emphatic stomps on the wood floor that could be felt as well as heard. Her unexpected arrival is further proof that entering this restaurant is like eating out in Europe or some exotic locale. (We’d later learn the dancer’s name is Sandra Hernandez and it was a scheduled performance we were not aware of.)
The restaurant is located near Danbury’s border with New Fairfield, and next door to Pembroke Deli, an excellent and also recently opened American and Mexican deli. Inside Gaudí’s front door, you see a fountain built into the wall. It is inspired by a similar fountain at the entrance to the Park Güell in Barcelona. The famous park is one of the signature works of the architect who is the restaurant’s namesake, Antoni Gaudí. It is the first of several nods to Gaudí’s architecture. The trencadís, a frequently imitated, recycled-mosaic style that Gaudí developed, inspired the design of the high-top tables in the bar. In the dining room are white tablecloths and a painted brick fireplace. The whole place is upscale in appearance but casual and family friendly in its feel.
In Spain, the culture of tapas encourages patrons to “restaurant hop,” trying one or two tapas from multiple restaurants in an evening of food, drink and camaraderie. Gaudí encourages you to have that type of experience all in one place, to eat slow and enjoy each course as it arrives.
The tapa las ramblas is a perfectly cooked hanger steak topped by chimichurri sauce that was recommended by our waiter and lived up to his enthusiastic endorsement of “so good!” The tortilla Española is a wonderful marriage of omelet and potato. The l’alegria de la huerta (cucumber salad) and the pescaíto frito (an assortment of fried seafood including calamari, shrimp and sardines) are equally strong tapas.
There are a handful of entrées; seven, to be exact. We only have room for the macarrons al forn, a delectable pasta with a tomato and chorizo sauce. On a subsequent visit, we were impressed by the paella, one of the restaurant’s signature dishes.
The tapas are accompanied by a coconut mojito, and the restaurant’s housemade red and white sangria. Both versions are good, but the red is perfection in a glass.
When the parade of dishes comes to an end, it is time for dessert, which would be worth a trip on its own. The peach brazo de gitano, a Spanish cake roll, was another recommendation from our waiter that could not have been more on point, while the suflé de chocolate served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream melted in our mouths.
The once-plain house on Route 37 has been transformed. Noemi is happy to have been proven wrong to doubt her sister’s dream. Today both sisters often repeat the story. “You have to be positive and dream because dreams come true,” Noemi says.