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Sunday
Oct142012

The Whelk: Bill Taibe's Inspired Seafood in Westport

Roasted Stonington Scallops

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. 

Shrimp & Grits

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.

Lobster

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.

Squid Ink Cavatelli

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).  

Candy Bar

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.  

The Whelk on Urbanspoon

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Reader Comments (21)

I could do without all of the green weeds placed on every dish. Does not look appetizing at all. Eeck.

October 14, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterhoopla

Sorry but after 2 visits we found this place to be underwhelming, unimpressive and exorbitantly overpriced. Quite simply stated they try to out do themselves. I agree with hoopla and it's another example of trying to over do what is a good concept: A unique take on seafood. Would not recommend it.

October 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndy S

When you are really good at what you do, you tend to attract some jealous sniping (case in point: comments above). The team at Whelk and what they accomplish in the kitchen makes for one of my favorite dining experiences in Fairfield County. Thanks for capturing the Whelk experience in words and photos.

October 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRuth E.

Love the photos....I'm eager to try The Whelk...word on the "street" is good!

October 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJane Beiles

Great review Chris. Spot on. Food at The Whelk is over the top. Service was an issue in the past but seems to have found their sea legs in recent months. Great, live atmosphere too.

October 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOMG

Have visited the Whelk 3 times now. Impressions ranged from strong like to love. I do agree it is probably the best restaurant in Westport now

October 14, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterwestportfoodlover

"Green weeds"? Seriously? Reading from top to bottom, I see

1. purslane
2. purslane/dill/baby chard or beet-greens
3. Baby dill or fennel
4. ?
5. nothing
6. Chopped basil
7, 8, 9: nothing
10: tarragon leaves (and flowers/buds?)
11; tiny basil and perhaps shizo?
12: nothing

Well, geez. I'd HATE to have any of THOSE damned fresh herbs in my food, even though each adds its own important flavor note. Next thing you know, these fancier-than-thou folks will be serving salad with something other than iceberg lettuce, which was the only thing God wanted us to eat. With orange "French dressing," damnit!

--John

October 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

To Andy S.,

Just curious what you mean by "trying to outdo themselves" and "overdo a good concept." Be specific. When did you go to Whelk? What did you eat or experience that led you to your opinion? I'm not necessarily a Whelk supporter, as I've not yet been, but I loved LeFarm so I'm interested in hearing why you do not recommend I try Whelk.

October 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLiz Comas

If you love Le Farm, you'll love the Whelk. It is inventive, interesting, really well cooked food. They certainly push the envelope with the ingredients they use, not things you see every day. That being said, you can go for it, or you can have the simpler things on the menu if pig ears or periwinkles aren't your thing. It is a long menu, tons of things to choose from. But that pig ear and kale salad was amazing!

October 14, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkbfood

I went to the Welk with my husband for our anniversary and absolutely loved it! The atmosphere, service, food... everything was wonderful! We can't wait to go back. Keep up the great work Bill and team!

October 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAKS

Agree 100% with this review! I visited The Whelk 5 different times since opening and had consistently amazing meals, enjoying a number of the dishes reviewed above. Each time I went without a reservation (with a group of 2, 3 or 4) and waited for seats at the communal tables or bar, never waiting more than 45 minutes. I love the casual atmosphere at the high top tables - gives you an opportunity to view all of the dishes and share favorites with the people around. The Whelk is my go to favorite restaurant at the moment. Keep up the good work!

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStmfdfoodie

This is my favorite restaurant on the East Coast.

It is definitely the best place in Westport, without question.

Apparently a lot of people agree, it is packed ALL the time.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterE. David Zotter

The sixth photo from the top..... are those leaches, worms, larve ? what the f....!

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterfoodieonline

foodieonline - If it's the same dish I had last time I was there - Squid ink pasta with lobster and sausage. Phenomenal!

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeff L

Beautiful photographs. Made me want to try everything. I only wish for captions. What is the seventh photo down, a bowl with yellow cherry tomatoes at the bottom? Looks intriguing!

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth Keysr

Jeff L., Thanks ..... They should say what it is. They look like black grubs.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterfoodieonline

We went to The Whelk a few weeks ago. Everything was fantastic. We had several oysters - which were great, but I wish I hadn't oystered-up there because we can do that at home. Lots of great options to chose from so I left wanting more.

We had the shrimp and black cavatelli - the grub shot above - and it was amazing. Really great balance and delicious. Serving sizes are good too. We had great service - helpful and chatty, but not overbearing.

My main reason for posting was the life-changing dessert I had. If the chocolate bread pudding is on the menu then you must order it! Resting in caramel and sprinkled with sea salt and peanuts, this may be the best thing I've ever tasted. Heaven on the Saugatuck indeed... Still dreaming about it weeks later!

October 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJWO113

Overpriced across the board, some great dishes, some not so great, amateurish service. Standout dishes show why this talented chef and restaurant have promise, but there's plenty of room for improvement.

October 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterfoodfan

Box score: LeFarm 9 Whelk 4
Not going back
Just plain average

October 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterALP

I have noticed things are slowing down a bit at the Whelk...

At 9 pm on your average Wednesday, say, it no longer appears from the street as though they are giving away free seafood.

October 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrealguy

Marvelous is all I can say!

November 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterg holland

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