The last year has given Westport three high-profile (if completely divergent) openings. Danny Meyer's Shake Shack opened its first venture into Connecticut and shook-up the Westport fast food scene and Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich opened a second Tarry Lodge in Saugatuck, bringing a different twist to traditional Italian restaurants. Finally, Chef Bill Taibe, the James Beard nominee and Owner / Chef of LeFarm opened The Whelk, his second Westport restaurant, on the Saugatuck River, just a short stroll from Tarry Lodge.
The Whelk, named after a sea snail similar to a conch, is primarily focused on seafood and addresses an oddly unexploited niche, a high-end seafood restaurant on Connecticut’s Gold Coast. For that reason alone, I was especially interested in The Whelk, and thus began my exploration, with multiple visits to this award winning kitchen.
[Call this a review "spoiler alert"] The Whelk is one of the best restaurants in Westport and is definitely in the conversation when the question of which is “the best” is discussed. Rarely does a restaurant exceed my expectations on the first visit by such a margin as did the Whelk.
The Whelk has a casual vibe, with tables (some communal tables) plus a bar available for walk-in customers. There is an abundance of wood and glass, with an overall nautical theme, but it is warm without being remotely kitschy. The place is packed on weekends and during prime dining hours (reservations are a must) and it can get noisy, but call that a side-effect of the success. The Whelk avoids formal pretentions with a casual atmosphere combined with spectacular food, akin to some of my favorite restaurants elsewhere – think Montreal’s legendary Au Pied de Cochon, or Manhattan’s Momofuku Ssam Bar. These are places where the primary emphasis is on food combined with a smart-casual surrounding.
The menu changes daily, based on the availability of seafood and other ingredients, so several of the dishes I describe may no longer be available. But the consistency across the menu should offer encouragement for diverse ordering.
The menu avoids the traditional appetizer / entrée description, and evolves from small cold dishes, to marinated and warm dishes, to finally the heavier options. The layout lends itself to meandering through the menu choosing a self-designed tasting menu over two to five courses. Again, the menu selection constantly changes, but I would like to highlight some of my absolutely favorite dishes over the months.
The small cold dishes include crudos, wild and farmed oysters (I love that they add just a bit of jalapeno to their mignonette), and each has been outstanding. Fried oysters, mussels, barbecued clams, receive new and inventive preparations on every visit as the menu evolves but are always perfectly prepared.
The Whelk Chowder, served in season, is Rhode Island broth-based style, with lots of vegetables, substantial without being heavy. The Crab Fondue is best described as an extremely rich chowder, with various additions, from grits to my favorite version, with uni. Pair this dish with one of the crisp white wines or one of The Whelk’s inventive cocktails, often heavy on bitters. The Periwinkles on Pumpernickel, a rare sight on a menu, were truly delightful.
In addition to the beautiful fish dishes, The Whelk offers several meat options including a lamb burger, prepared with moroccan flavors, and made with ground lamb from next door's Saugatuck Craft Butchery, as well as a nicely executed Fried Chicken Sandwich with pimento cheese, and fabulous hot & sour pickles. However, the seafood is so stellar, that I see little reason to stray from it. Though for small dishes, the kitchen’s tendency to serve miscellaneous meats – head cheese, pig tails, etc., is another reason to appreciate the culinary perspective.
An early version of octopus, topped with fries, gravy, and harissa, was a rare misstep, as the fries were mushy and the dish was unbalanced. I decided to order a different version of the dish on a later visit and on the second attempt, the octopus was served over toast with Meyer lemon slices and green olives. The octopus was perfectly offset by the bright and acidic accompanying flavors. A rite of spring, the shad roe at the Whelk was similar to the most luxurious omelet every created, it was a revelation. Mackerel, an under-appreciated fish, receives the royal treatment at The Whelk; my favorite preparation was smoked to order and served over orzo, with a lime-soy sauce and cracklin’s.
To choose a favorite single dish is a daunting task, but I would like to call out the Pork Belly with Clams, white beans, & salsa verde, it echoed the classic Portuguese dish, while being a completely modern take.
If you have room for dessert, my favorite was the Meyer lemon posset, a traditional simple dessert of cream, sugar, and juice, and the Candy Bars, a trifecta of nutty, chocolatey decadence (seen below).
On my first visit to The Whelk, I went with high hopes and a fair amount of skepticism. After several visits, I struggle to name a place where I have enjoyed better food in Fairfield County in recent years. Kudos to Chef Taibe and his entire team.
The Whelk 575 Riverside Avenue Westport.