Crack One Open
For seafood lovers, the new The Whelk along the Saugatuck is irresistible
photographs by Sean Ackley
This is not your average vacation-town oyster bar. Yes, the seafood is super fresh, the atmosphere is low-key but charming and the restaurant is set on the water, backing up to the Saugatuck River. But with dishes like griddled octopus, green olives and Meyer lemon on toast and warm crab fondue with grits, sea urchin and fronions on the menu and wine (yes, wine!) on tap, you know you’re not in Nantucket. Instead, you are on the turf of Bill Taibe, the chef/owner of LeFarm. Recognized for his exceptional cooking and relationships with farmers, Taibe was recently nominated for a James Beard award for Best Chef in New England. And at this fifty-five-seat restaurant, a partnership with Massimo Tullio of Fat Cat Pie Company and Dan Kardos as the chef, Taibe turns his passion for sustainability toward the sea.
“I’ve always wanted to do an oyster bar,” says Taibe, whose original concept was a more casual place with peanut shells on the floor. He also envisioned a restaurant completely different from LeFarm. “I didn’t want to take away from that. Here, we’ll be known for our oysters, crabs, Stonington shrimp, sea scallops, black bass.” And perhaps for the whelk, an oyster-eating sea snail for which the restaurant is named. These peasants of the seafood world are a bicatch for fisherman like Norm Bloom, a third-generation oysterman out of East Norwalk who’s a supplier for the restaurant. “There’s this misconception that the Sound is dirty,” Taibe says. Bloom’s oyster cages come up loaded with whelk, making them sustainable and affordable, not to mention tasty when cooked into chowder.
He says people are enjoying the communal dining area, as his restaurants draw customers with such a strong interest in food and wine that “somehow a conversation is going to spark.” These tables, in the center of the room, are first-come, first-served, while individual tables by the windows facing Riverside Avenue can be reserved. We opted for an early reservation at a recent dinner, our open minds, big appetites and eager anticipation in tow.
This is the kind of place where you can drop in for oysters and cocktails as easily as for a full meal. The open space features ample bar seating, rustic wood tables set with dish-towel napkins, a giant iron chandelier in back and lots of light coming in from two walls’ worth of windows. Tables have hooks underneath for hanging your purse—a design touch ladies will appreciate. Naturally, oysters were our first order of business. They had five varieties of raw oysters that night (Big Rock, Island Creek, Wellfleet, Peters Point and Marion Port). Served with a classic mignonette, each wild Marion Port is a pure bite of the ocean. We also started with the smoked trout dip, dished into a glass jar topped with roe and a piece of fish skin; it’s outstanding spread onto a roll. I was easily persuaded to try the skinny french fries (a mound of them for $7), paired with a fab smoky mayo.
For our mains, we couldn’t resist trying that warm crab fondue with sea urchin and grits, which the waiter recommended and Taibe later told me is his current favorite entrée. Eclectic, highbrow comfort food, this dish is simultaneously creamy, salty, spicy, crunchy (thanks to the fronions), though with the name “fondue” we half expected there would be something to dip into it. The local whelk and shiitake middlins risotto style is hearty and almost meaty; whelks are a bit chewier than clams, but I loved the flavor. My husband opted for Norman’s lobster butter: lobster that’s cooked three-quarters of the way and then poached in butter and served over fingerling potatoes and leeks. How can you go wrong? We also enjoyed the tender squid ink cavatelli with red shrimp, chorizo and tomatoes. The only dish we weren’t crazy about was the raw marinated mackerel; we were dreaming of cool, shiny crudo and this was served slightly warm.
Desserts are a mix of nostalgia and playfulness. The wicked-good whoopie pies remind me of Maine, but my favorite sweets are the magic bars. Remember those bake-sale treats made of coconut, chocolate chips, nuts and graham cracker crumbs? These may one-up your memory, as they also involve butterscotch sauce, a hint of salt and fresh whipped cream. Other after-dinner options include artisan cheeses served with Joe Froggers (ginger snaps) and cherries as well as a selection of ports.
All the wines here are selected by The Whelk’s expert, Massimo Tullio. With his guidance, The Whelk has become the first restaurant in Connecticut to bring in wine on tap. If you’ve never heard of this concept, you will soon. Handcrafted wines are put into kegs and never see air, so there’s no need for sulfates and preservatives. These wines are greener because they are easier to transport and there’s less packaging, no glass or cardboard. Even better news: Wines that would be $12 per glass can be sold for just $8. Look for Gotham Project’s Riesling/Chardonnay blend as well as a Washington State Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah blend. “I make sure there are artists—not chemists—behind the wines I choose,” says Tullio.
Of course, beer is on tap too, and there’s hope for savoring a cold one at an outdoor table this summer. Riverfront patio seating is in the works, with the latest plan being a wraparound bar table for twenty. The waterfront location is key because Taibe’s ultimate goal is for seafood (and guests) to come directly off the boats and into the restaurant. Given his enthusiasm and drive, I’d say, get those docks ready.
575 Riverside Avenue, Westport