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The Blind Rhino Opens in Norwalk

When I hear “sports bar,” I think Miller Lite and Budweiser, buffalo chicken wings, big screen TVs, and pub-style food. I’m not saying all of those things aren’t fabulous; it’s just that if I were to go on a quest for coveted craft beers or gourmet cuisine, a sports bar wouldn’t be my destination.

The Blind Rhino, recently opened in South Norwalk, is changing these preconceptions. The newly opened restaurant is undoubtedly a sports bar, with 27 big screen TVs, shuffleboard, darts, and jerseys adorning the walls. At the same time, they have elevated the concept with impressive menu items, an array of craft beers, and a variety of whiskeys. Sports bar staples are still on the menu- but with a twist!

“While having sections likes wings, appetizers, soups, and sandwiches seems to be par for the course, having items in them like Togareshi Dry Rub Wings, Cider Braised Pork Belly Sliders, and a Sliced Ribeye Cheese Steak is exactly how we want to take our dining experience to the next level,” says manager Casey Dohme.

The menu is not large; in fact, the entire thing fits on an 8.5 x 11 piece of cardstock. However, each item is thoughtful and delicious.

“The menu isn’t 9 pages long either, and doesn’t need to be,” Dohme affirms. “The menu is small and concise, but with a focus on quality and execution.”

Chef Jamie Pantanella is the chef/owner behind the cuisine. He has worked in restaurants and catering all over New England for the past 22 years. His most recent restaurant work includes The Brewhouse and Gingerman SoNo. At The Blind Rhino, Pantanella hones his years of experience to offer his “highlight reel.”

Dohme and their other business partner, Matt Bacco, also have a history with Gingerman SoNo. Dohme worked there for 6 years before opening Cask Republic in Stamford, which is owned by the same restaurant group. Bacco worked at Gingerman SoNo around the same time. He went onto work at Gingerman’s NYC location as well as Cask Republic in New Haven.

“We all are grateful to have worked for, and honed our skills in that company. We learned and experienced a lot, enough to spin out into the world and try our own hand in the game,” Dohme reflects. “We have a great relationship with Christian and the Cask family, and our concepts differ enough to where there isn’t any reason to compare the two spots.”

“We are different, and that’s a good thing,” he adds.

The Blind Rhino team is also friendly with its neighbors at O’Neill’s. In fact, it was there that they came up with the moniker “The Blind Rhino.”

The restaurant developed quickly; they heard of the space in July, signed the lease in August, and opened to the public on October 16. In the fervor they suddenly realized they lacked a name.

“We knew what we didn’t want,” Dohme told me. We knew that the 27 TV’s were going to scream “sports bar” and we believe this will turn into something more than a sports bar so we didn’t want to use anything “sportsy” in our name. But we didn’t know what we did want.”

They decided the best course of action would be to journey over to O’Neill’s, order some pints, and let the libations inspire them. The adjective “Blind” came naturally, in honor of prohibition. After a few more rounds, they added “Rhino.” Casey was coy when describing exactly what the animal represents, simply calling it “a bit of inside joke.”

“We’re fun. We like to have a good time and we want everyone who comes in to have a good time,” he says. “We our personalities show through in the name.”

I had the chance to visit The Blind Rhino on a Friday night in November. The atmosphere won me over immediately. Like its menu, everything was juxtaposition. Jerseys and big screen TVs lined the walls, while dim lighting evoked a sense of trendiness. In the heart of South Norwalk it was a part of the scene, but also a place where people could be casual and relaxed. Young adults made up the majority of the clientele, but I spotted a few families having dinner. A distinct dining area, separate from the bar but still in view of TVs, made it family-friendly.

Dohme credits the space with inspiring the concept.

“Once we knew this was our space and we were inheriting 27 TV’s, we knew we were going to be a sports bar, and we were excited about it,” he explains. “So we knew we wanted to use that as our core concept, and build upon it in every way.”

My friends and I spent a bit of time in the bar before moving toward the back of the restaurant for a game of shuffleboard. After another half hour or so, we moved toward a table on the edge of the bar to try some food. I enjoyed the progression and how the layout kept our evening unfolding.

We started with the sweet potato hummus for the table. It came with house-made pita, carrots, and celery sticks. It was tasty, and certainly paid homage to autumn produce. The pita chips it came with were also memorable. They were crispy and generously seasoned with herbs and spices that complemented the hummus.

In addition, we ordered two varieties of their wings. The waitress recommended their newest type, Hoisin Chili, which we were more than happy to try. We selected the Orange Chipotle as well. The wings can be ordered in sets of 6, 12, or 30, and we got 6 of each. When they arrived at the table, we also received a silver bucket for our bones. The wings were cooked nicely, with juicy interiors and flavorful glazes outside.

Next, I had the Cider Braised Pork Belly Sliders. I enjoyed the meat immensely. Sometimes pork belly is simply too rich for me. I’ve ordered it before where the chef wants to emphasize the fattiness of the cut and make it a malleable gooey slab. This pork belly, however, struck the perfect balance between decadent and tender. The meat to bun worked well and the slider format prevented the pork belly from feeling to overpowering.

The sliders were finished with a smoked apple chutney and a jicama slaw. Hints of cinnamon and other spices complemented the pork belly and reminded me of fall. The slaw added crunch to each bite.

My dining companions raved about the Black Bean Chipotle Burger. It came with the delicious Sweet Potato Hummus we enjoyed first along with caramelized Vidalia, lettuce, and tomato. Though a vegetarian option, my carnivorous friends could not get enough.

While the team does dream of a day when they might have multiple Blind Rhinos, (or a “crash” as Casey Dohme points out to me is the term for a herd of rhinos), they are enthusiastic about the opportunity in front of them.

“Either way the focus is this location right now, and working hard to deliver a great product to our guests,” says Dohme. “If expansion and growth happen, we’ll welcome it, and be ready for it.”

Emma Jane-Doody Stetson