Jane Stern’s best meal of the year was at Craft 14

I have a big grin on my face as I write this. I had dinner last night at a newish restaurant in Wilton called Craft 14 and that is the reason I am smiling. If you have not ventured out recently, please let me tell you there is a boom in new restaurants opening in Fairfield County, a bounty that makes it hard for any food lover (or critic) to keep up.

With all the razzle dazzle and endless possibilities out there, I think I might have had the best meal of the year last night at Craft 14.

I have driven and walked past Craft 14 a few times since it opened. It sits in a not very pretty group of stores anchored by a big Stop & Shop supermarket. There are a few new places in this business loop: one is Parlor, a hip place that I reviewed a short time back that makes great pizzas and fancy cocktails. Craft 14 is a few doors down from Parlor. I was in sort of a blah mood when I walked through the front door. Frankly, I did not expect much, and happily I was mistaken.

It is so hard to define good ambiance, but as the old saying goes you know it when you see it. I was greeted by a charming waitress, escorted to any table I liked (instead of shoehorned to where the restaurant wanted me to sit), and quickly was asked what I would like to drink. I must have been inside Craft 14 for 10 minutes when I began to unwind and my blahs went away. Everything was clean and comfortable and the temperature and lighting perfect. Like many new restaurants Craft 14 is proud of its craft cocktails. There is a separate mixology menu with 11 interesting and unusual drinks. Call me a party pooper, but I ordered club soda. Yes, I like to drink but have been repeatedly disappointed by too many weird concoctions flying under the banner of craft cocktails. Craft cocktails seem to all include a hodge-podge of ingredients: bitters, agave, sparkling wines and elderberry tonic. My idea of a good drink is Tanquerey and tonic, so I passed on these clever creations and went straight to dinner.

Craft 14

5 River Road, Wilton

Absolutely everything I ordered was delicious, not just good or acceptable but truly superior. The menu (to me) is just the right length, long enough to be pondered for a while but brief enough to not be confusing. I ordered shrimp and grits, the South Carolina specialty that often does not translate north of the Mason Dixon line. I was amazed at how authentic and good the dish was. The cheddar grits were savory and slow cooked, the shrimp snapping fresh and the peppers and gravy blended perfectly. It was as good as the last shrimp and grits I had at my favorite restaurant in Charleston.

The hanger steak was also noteworthy, glazed and juicy it came sided by a yummy mound of mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, roasted pepper and onion chutney and garlicky spinach. The Craft 14 Burger looked like a glamour shot on the cover of a food magazine. I would estimate the burger to be at least five inches tall. A large wood-fired patty of beef, lettuce, carmelized onions, aged cheddar, chipotle mayo and a sunny side-up egg all mounded on a brioche bun. A real show stopper.

There is a section of the menu devoted only to mac and cheese. There is the classic kind of just cheese and elbow noodles, but if you want to go beyond this safe dish please try the mac and cheese with wood-fired short ribs, or the swanky mac lobster, which combines traditional elbow macaroni with freshly picked lobster meat splashed with just a hint of cognac and a dab of mascarpone.

I could be happy never going beyond the “small plates” on the menu which (by the way) happen to be very generous “small plates.” For a modest appetite, a small plate might be enough for a main course, or you might want to adventurous and get a few small plates instead of one big main course. Thumbs up to the wood-roasted pork ribs with a pomegranate glaze, sided with slaw and cornbread. I ordered this in tandem with ricotta croquettes with applewood smoked bacon, tomato confit and chipotle honey. ... a dynamic duo.

The deeper I went into the menu the more impressed I was and wondered if Craft 14 would mind if I parked my car in the lot outside and lived in it for a while. It would facilitate my easy ordering of the spectacular grilled romaine Caesar salad with shaved parmesan and house-made croutons. I would only have to walk a few feet for the perfect Branzino fish served with charred lemon, Kalamata olives, orzo and fennel. Fried chicken with waffles (a weird novelty dish that is usually a horrible combo) regains its dignity at Craft 14. One can see what it is supposed to taste like and why it has become so popular. The waffle is a savory cheddar and bacon, with a slice of watermelon and good slaw.

You may have noticed a theme of wood-fired and charred things on the menu, and in the wrong hands this can spell disaster. I have had any number of “wood-fired” meals that tasted like something someone grabbed out of the oven as the house burned down. At Craft 14, charing and smoking are done with a light hand.

If you read this column regularly, you know I am often not easy to please, but dear readers I could not find fault with anything here. Let me know your thoughts.

Jane Stern is co-author of the “Roadfood” book series.