There's no doubt in my mind, they should really change the name of Fairfield County to Taibe Town! We all know the reputation of big brother Bill's excellent work at LeFarm and The Whelk, but now there's a new Taibe in town. He goes by the name of Jeff, and is Executive Chef of the newly opened Oak + Almond in Norwalk. This is Chef Jeff's debut as exec but there is nothing green about him - aside from all the sustainable, farm-to-table and biodynamic offerings on the menu. Experienced as sous chef at LeFarm and also at Southwest Cafe in Ridgefield (as well as plenty of mileage cooking and designing menus at various resorts in Turks and Caicos), Jeff brings panache and style to his ever-changing menu. Along with co-owner Jon Paul Pirraglia, General Manager Seth Levin and an incredibly knowledgeable and courteous staff, Jeff and co. are onto something excellent...
Oak + Almond finds itself in a rather unlikely location, right next to the DMV in Norwalk. But once inside, you could be in Sonoma, San Francisco or Manhattan. With clean, white walls, a tin roof and dark wood tables, chairs and floors, the atmosphere is hip and inviting. The open kitchen, massive rotisserie and large, wood burning oven greet you at the top of the stairs and almost anywhere you sit, you can watch Taibe and crew hard at work creating their magic.
The use of, yes you guessed it, Oak + Almond woods in the open oven adds to the initial sensation as you enter and the comforting smell remains through the dining experience, adding another element of comfort and down-hominess to an otherwise sleek first impression. Though the physical space here is rather large, intimacy can be found in smaller rooms that can be closed off with stylish, sliding glass doors. There is a separate bar scene, off to one side, which is made cozy by its surroundings in stucco, creating a Mediterranean feel. And outside, opening soon, an enormous outdoor patio/bar that will serve 70. But the physical space is only the mannequin. It is the food itself which dresses this place and in this instance, we're talking haute couture! Here's why:
First on the agenda - SPRING PEA and SPINACH SOUP. With no cream at all, this puree tastes like a Tuscan valley at sunrise. The predominant flavor is the freshest of English Peas with a healthy lime infusion, contributed by the lime yogurt drizzle. The spinach is present but not overpowering and the delicate smoky addition of locally sourced bacon pulls the earthy tones to the top of the palette. Served piping hot with freshly baked bread, made on site with a perfectly crunchy crust, this soup is a must. The KITCHEN SINK SALAD is noteworthy with avocado, red onion, fresh turkey and green apple atop fresh, garden greens. But the other dishes we sampled were so extraordinary, the KITCHEN SINK simply made a cameo appearance in the movie that was playing in my mouth.
Sensational is the GRIDDLED OCTOPUS atop fresh chick peas, fennel and delectable Harissa (Tunisian hot chilli sauce.) Taibe adds a touch of mint to this concoction which accentuates the griddled, slightly smoky flavor of the octopus. This OCTOPUS is outstanding. Not chewy in the least, Taibe griddles this cephalopod to perfection and the addition of the fennel adds another dimension of flavor to this exquisite appetizer. And it is just this layering of flavors that seems to be Taibe's forte'.
And there is no better example of this layering genius than the SWORDFISH CRUDO. Excuse me, but this dish is down-right sexy. Reminiscent of some of the insane concoctions to be found at a few, famous Manhattan sushi bars, Taibe has outdone himself with this offering. Delicately sliced swordfish, so tender and sweet that we had trouble discerning what we were eating, is showered with pickled beets and ramps. Strewn on top are thin slices of ripe avocado and tiny, blood- orange segments. On top of that, wee pomegranate seeds. And beneath it all, just enough so that your spoon scrapes up a tiny smattering with each mouthful, is burnt garlic - not burnt to char, burnt to caramelize. This caramelization adds just a touch of sweet to the citrus of the fruit, the creaminess of the avocado, the savory aspect of the fish and the slightest tang from the pickled veggies. And every so often, the surprise of a pomegranate seed popping on the tongue adds a burst of bright texture to the smooth and delicate nature of the dish's star component, the swordfish itself.
Another must-try is the VEGETABLE TAGINE. A Tagine is a typical Moroccan dish, named after the heavy clay pot in which the food is cooked. Taibe's TAGINE consists of cous cous, Moroccan spices, vegetables and green olives topped with a yogurt drizzle, all resting on a pillow of fresh chick peas. Again, it is his ability to layer flavors in an extraordinary way that makes Chef Jeff stand out in the crowd and this TAGINE is another example of this technique. Each ingredient in the dish has a starring role without overpowering any other in pot; each texture and flavor makes an impact on the palette. Also, the cone-shaped lid of the clay vessel traps steam during cooking which allows all the liquids in the various ingredients to return to the pot. This results in vegetables at their moistest and the Moroccan spices -including saffron, mint, coriander, ginger, cinnamon, cumin, parsley and citrus - are infused into each bite.
The HERITAGE PORK sandwich is a wonderful hearty option. Heritage pork (from a breed of Hogs that can be traced back BEFORE industrial farming techniques) and other fine ingredients from Holbrook Farms in Bethel (including farm fresh eggs), Manchego cheese and a Sriracha aioli are piled high on BRIOCHE from Wave Hill Bakery. This is one of Chef Jeff's signature dishes and should not be missed.
I tend to avoid pasta when ordering for a review as, after living in Italy for a good chunk of time, I tend to be disappointed. Luckily, I did decide to try the BUCATINI alla AMATRICIANA. Simple but packed with flavor, this pasta dish is as authentic as it could be outside of "Nonna's" kitchen. Bucatina is a thick, spaghetti noodle with a hole (or "buco") running through the middle. Here, a spicy tomato sauce - and we are talking earthy, flavorful tomatoes (complete with locally sourced and aptly smoky bacon and fresh spring onions) - not only coats the pasta on the outside but makes its way into the noodle itself, making for a richer, more potent flavor experience. At last, a pasta dish I would order again and again, right here in Taibe Town.
The GRASS FED HAMBURGER, complete with bacon, gogonzola and roasted cippolini looked very promising but there was only SO much four foodies could handle in one sitting. (No fear, Jfood will have more intel on the burger very soon!) Another item that looked excellent, but that we missed at this sitting, was the FUNGHI FLATBREAD with charred green onion, fontina topped with a balsamic reduction, cooked in the wood burning oven, of course.
The finale came by way of Chef Jeff's amazing MILK CHOCOLATE PANNA COTTA. Served in an adorable mason jar, this light and airy confection is topped with caramelized banana, plenty of hazelnuts and freshly whipped cream. Far from cloying, this was the supreme end to a truly great meal. OAK AND ALMOND, only in its first month, promises a truly fantastic culinary experience. Go!!
OAK + ALMOND is open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner!
544 Main Avenue, Norwalk 203.846.4600