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« Greenwich Dishcrawl Returns by Popular Demand | Main | Good vs. Evil: An Evening with Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert »
Sunday
Apr282013

Oak + Almond Opens in Norwalk Under Chef Jeff Taibe

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

Oak + Almond on Urbanspoon

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Reader Comments (10)

Great to read your take on Oak and Almond, Sarah. Good to know that as Jeff is working on the menu he is aware and willing to alter dishes for vegetarians. I loved this resto and can't wait to return.

April 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLiz Rueven

Ate there Saturday night and bumped into three couples we knew, but still wasn't as full as it should have been. It will be soon though! Had an outstanding meal. Each dish was surprising and a winner. Beautiful decor, great service and such delicious food. Worth the offbeat location! Can't wait to go back and try everything on menu!

April 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRina

Can't wait to try! Thanks for the review

April 29, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermla19

Had dinner there this past Thursday. Great atmosphere, great service. Ordered the garlic&herb flatbread to share, the mussels and the short rib ravioli. The flatbread was delicious and the portion large raising the anticipation for the other dishes. The mussels were surprisingly bland, well cooked and well presented but bland. Usually that dish will result in sopping up or spooning the sauce not wishing to miss a drop, not so this time. The short rib ravioli had horseradish root, ramps and local mushrooms and while it was more flavorful than the mussels it still was missing that special pop of flavor that those ingredients would suggest. I know it's new and as always there are growing pains so we certainly will try them again in a few weeks and see if there is any difference. One thing that does trouble me that is also easily fixed are the prices on the wine list. It is reasonable to expect 100% markup from retail but the wine we had was almost 200% over what I've seen it for in local retail shops. Other wines were in that same 150-200% range. That is well over what is reasonable and I would hope they ramp it down or failing that impose a reasonable corking fee for bringing your own and also have one or two off priced wine nights.

All in all, it's nice to have a place like this, I just hope they fix these small issues so it thrives.

April 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKevin

Excellent review Sarah and deservingly so...it was an amazing lunch! People, go renew your driver's license at the DMV then hop on over to Oak and Almond...it will make your time at the DMV truly forgettable... for once!

April 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNancy

Locally sourced bacon? I'd love to know where I could get some local bacon!

May 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRlam

Looks great. Wish a Taibe would venture up to New Haven to open a restaurant. I think they'd be extremely well received there. It's the right audience for their food.

May 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRK

It is a convenient spot for several couples or families to dine. And has lots of potential. I agree that some of the dishes lacked that special pop. And the staff needs some fine-tuning. But I love the ingredients and the healthy options for kids (and adults). Also impressive how they are using the former restaurant's wood burning oven to cook burgers, chicken and other menu items. The white paint on the interior is a bit bland with the industrial decor, but the windows let in so much light and the patio offers another great space. We will be back!

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCJ

We just had lunch here and if dinner is this good. I cant wait until we go back on Friday night.

June 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKevin

A couple of couples, a couple of dishes and a couple of drinks made for a great night at Oak + Almond. Chef Jeff Taibe definitely has some great talent and his ability to blend different flavors and textures on the plate is outstanding.

The highlights of my dinner and excellent choices are as follow:
• Pork Belly Appetizer – this might be the best pork belly I have ever eaten. Flavors were followed by more flavors; and textures were enhanced by more textures. The belly itself was succulent and absolutely delicious. This is a must have dish.
• The Grilled Salmon with faro verde risotto and kumquats – Another must have dish. The salmon was perfectly prepared and the faro verde risotto was bright and delicious, complementing the salmon with great flavors.

A couple of dishes were very good but need a few tweaks:
• Stuffed quail – I thought the stuffing was a little overwhelming in flavor for the quail meat. When I limited the stuffing and ensured one of the dried apricots from the stuffing was included in the bite, this was a great combination. The flavors were there; the ratio needs a little work.
• Chocolate panna cotta – The texture was great but I would have preferred a deeper flavored milk chocolate or a dark chocolate to complement the candied banana slices sitting atop. Still a very refreshing end to the meal.

The restaurant has only been open a few weeks and the service was very spotty. Most important is the restaurant could really use a much stronger venting system to draw the smoke from the wood oven from permeating the dining areas.

Overall, Oak + Almond is getting its legs under it very nicely and in the near future will definitely rank as one of the best in the area.

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