Restaurant Review / Proven chef does it again
He's done it again. Arguably one of the most talented, creative and often quirky chefs in the area, Bill Taibe has opened his second restaurant in Westport.
This one, a seafood-themed place named The Whelk (a little known mollusk) complements his meatier place called Le Farm.
Le Farm is a tiny little place tucked away in downtown Westport, while the new one is considerably larger and on the water in Saugatuck, though without a direct water view.
But the salt air and sea breezes, along with a fabulous contemporary beach shack ambiance, easily conjures up a seaside sunset.
Slatted chairs, weathered tabletops and burnished iron-and-brass boat lamps play nicely against white tiled walls. Seating is offered at light-drenched tables as well as a high-topped communal table in the center of the room. Bar seating lines the back while a "chef's table" is really a bar overlooking the kitchen.
The atmosphere is lively and fun, and the service is just as brisk and welcoming.
Both of Taibe's restaurants focus on local, artisanal, seasonal ingredients. Just like fruits and vegetables, seafood has most definite seasons, so this concept is especially laudable at The Whelk.
More InformationThe Whelk 575 Riverside Ave., Westport, 203-557-0902, www.thewhelkwestport.com Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 5-9:30 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday Reservations: Accepted Credit Cards: AE, V, MC Prices: Appetizers, small plates $19-$7; main courses $36-$18; desserts $8
This also means that the menu will adapt according to what is freshest in season at the market. That said, Taibe continues to amaze diners in what can be done with the simplest of ingredients.
Take, for example, Atlantic crab meat, grits, ham and wild onions -- the latter considered a weed in most places. Gently mix the crab with richly creamed grits livened with flecks of Benton ham, dolloped with briny sea urchin roe and sprinkled with ultra-crisp fried onion threads. This is as memorable a dish as I have had in years.
A close second is griddled octopus, whose tender tentacles are lightly crisped, served on a bed of lightly sauteed spinach and fennel, sprinkled with crunchy dried chorizo and sidled with fresh oregano-seasoned mayonnaise. I'm still dreaming about this one.
Fading into delicious memory as the season wanes is roasted soft-shell crab on a bed of tangy, oniony ramps, highlighted with country ham and Brussels sprout fried rice.
Hopefully, cornmeal fried oysters will stay and change only with the type of oyster. Served atop creamed wild green onions and sprinkled with spicy ham, along with a dusting of aged cheddar, this is likely to become one of the house signature dishes.
Squid ink cavatelli tossed with red shrimp, Mexican chorizo and preserved tomato is intriguingly rich, though black pasta is both an acquired taste and sight.
All of the above, along with seasonally changing platters of perfectly fresh, briny oysters, clams, crab claws and smoked trout rillettes, are on the appetizer or small plate menu.
Each is complex and served in generous portions, but is priced within reason for such complex and expensive ingredients.
There are lovely main courses, such as black sea bass, with wild onion flecked rice, tangerines and paprika-inflected butter, or a fabulous lobster dish with leeks and fingerling potatoes, but at about twice the price, we'd stay with a few small plate tastings.
For non-seafood folks, Taibe brings his carnivorous skills to the kitchen with a variation on his signature burger, here with lamb, herbed mayo and rich tomato jam on a fresh brioche bun along with his excellent hand-cut French fries.
There is also a lovely hanger steak with green peppercorns and pureed potatoes and carrots.
After such sophisticated savories, the desserts are appealing for their childlike simplicity.
Whoopie pies are dark chocolate cakes sandwiched with homemade marshmallow cream, while lemon posset in a tumbler is served with tiny cornmeal crisps.
Vanilla panna cotta is lovely, light and cooling while the "magic bar" takes this famous layered bar cookie to new heights with a ladling of sea salt flavored with warm butterscotch sauce.
The Whelk, even with its near miss as a water view, is the most imaginative and interesting seafood restaurant to open here in years.