The Whelk, Westport

 

★★★½ [Superior-Extraordinary]

The Whelk in Westport is a thrill-seeker’s paradise for been-there-done-that foodies. The name proclaims the cuisine and tells you a lot about the chef. Who but chef Bill Taibe would name a new seafood restaurant after an obscure marine gastropod with a sharp pointed shell?

But Bill Taibe is an original, so far ahead of frontrunning food trends that they may never catch up. While the Todd Englishes and Mario Batalis of the culinary world are pausing to brand their ideas, chef Taibe is coming up with new ones. Recipes? He says he has none—on file or in his head. For him, everything begins with ingredients. In his kitchen, it’s “Iron Chef” every day.

It’s a bit of a challenge to assemble a traditional meal from a menu that makes no distinction between appetizers and entrées. The price tag and the listed ingredients should help you decide.  The good news is that there’s a world of choice. Thirty-four intriguing creations, ranging from periwinkles on pumpernickel to roasted halibut with creamed ramps and duck fat potatoes, are on offer.     

Taibe credits his customers with considerable food knowledge but there’s no need to feel intimidated. The staff is friendly and they’re learning, too. Our waitress is eager to tell us about bottarga, which she recently learned is the Italian name for salt-cured fish roe, dried in a block and traditionally shaved over pasta, but in this instance sprinkled on crispy-edged fried eggs. When we ask about uni, she consults the chef and reports that the uni, or sea urchin roe, is invisible because it is incorporated in the creamy peekytoe crab mélange the menu calls fondue. Both dishes are delicious and unusual in their way. Fried eggs for dinner? Sea urchin in creamed crab?  

The fact that my friends and I know a fair amount about food only increases our inclination to ask questions. “Long Island octopus?” my Italian friend exclaims. “I didn’t know we had any in the Sound.” Her incredulity, relayed to the kitchen, brings chef Taibe to our table to affirm that the octopus we are eating did indeed come from Long Island Sound (I buy them whenever they’re available—which is not often), and the reason this particular cephalopod is so tender and delicately flavored is because it’s been cooked sous-vide (in vacuum-sealed pouches), untouched by anything but olive oil. Served without sauce and only a few garnishes (olives, lemon and a dab of organic mayo), this octopus is as fresh, natural and pristine as it is possible to be.

Everything looks pretty on the plate. Ingredients chosen for their beauty are simply prepared in ways that preserve and enhance that beauty. A lovely little rainbow trout, for example, is served whole, silver scales shining, deboned so expertly it looks untouched. But opened out, the fish reveals a thin ribbon of emerald-green purée—wild ramps are in season. Bill Taibe uses only the green tops to give this purée a clear, clean woodsy flavor just right for a trout pulled from a crystalline stream. Fiddlehead ferns are in season, too, and their furled fronds decorate the plate.  

Because these are small plates, you get to try lots of different things. There are four of us and we romp through the menu tasting everything in sight. Soft-shell crab, delicate and mild, is felicitously paired with zingy ham and Brussels sprout fried rice. A salad of romaine lettuce, white anchovy, soft eggs and smoked walnuts adds up to a deluxe Caesar.

Judy falls in love with the “fronions” topping the peekytoe fondue. Thread-thin and french-fried, they’re fired up with jalapeño. In flashy company like this, roasted halibut with creamed ramps and potatoes seems almost plain-Jane, but a nice piece of fish perfectly prepared is sometimes just what’s wanted. Tonight, however, cobia gets the raves. Chefs love this popular game fish because you can do anything with it—poach it, cream it, steam it, serve it raw as ceviche, make fish-and-chips with it, or, as Taibe does at The Whelk, smoke it over a cherrywood fire and serve it with bacon-clam butter and roasted fiddlehead ferns.   

The dessert list is short and choice. No blockbuster hot fudge sundaes here. Just a little bite of something sweet: whoopie pies (think chocolate cake and marshmallow fluff), a “magic bar” involving butterscotch and coconut, Meyer lemon posset and vanilla panna cotta; both custardy, the last two strike me as too alike in taste and texture for such a short dessert list. But the menu is seasonal and who knows what wonders will appear when cherries and quinces and elderberries ripen.

All told, Bill Taibe is a chef with a culinary voice as distinctive as Sinatra or Callas. And The Whelk—crowded, noisy, artfully casual and totally uncategorizable—is the most sophisticated clam shack on the New England coast.

The Whelk
575 Riverside Ave., Westport (203/557-0902; thewhelkwestport.com)
Dinner Tuesday through Saturday 5 to 9:30. Major credit cards. Price range: Small plates $5 to $16, large ones $16 to $36, dessert $8.  
 

The Whelk, Westport

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