Stressful. Terrifying. Difficult. Exhausting.
These and a few more unprintable phrases are what I’ve heard from chefs and restaurant owners when I’ve asked them to describe their experiences since March. But until I spoke with chef Bill Taibe recently, a word I hadn’t heard used to describe any aspect of the past few months in the restaurant industry was “boring.”
But bored is exactly what Taibe was feeling working the kitchen Mother’s Day at what was then Jesup Hall in Westport. (He also owns Kawa Ni and The Whelk, both also in Westport.) Amid the chaos and stress of navigating his three restaurants through the storm of the pandemic and shutdown, he found himself uninspired by the cuisine he was creating at Jesup Hall that day. He decided to shut it down, even though the restaurant was a critical and, Taibe says, a financial success.
“There was absolutely nothing wrong with Jesup,” he says. “I just got bored.”
To jolt his culinary creativity back to life he opened Don Memo, a Mexican cantina in the former Jesup Hall space in late June. I was sad to see Jesup Hall, a restaurant I loved, close, but as soon as I tasted the food at Don Memo I forgot all about the former restaurant.
Along with Anthony Kostelis, the longtime chef at The Whelk, Taibe has created a menu that combines the comfort-food flavor of the best Mexican cuisine with the local sourcing and high-concept food for which Taibe’s other restaurants are known. A chicken enchilada is drenched in spicy red-orange sauce and is a perfect fusion of sauce, tortilla and chicken — it is love at first bite. The chorizo tacos are build-your-own and served with a plate of beautiful meat accented with spring onions and a whole roasted tomatillo, with warm housemade tortillas on the side. I’ve never had a better Connecticut taco. The lobster tostada is a work of art on the plate, the crunchy fried tortilla accentuated by the red lobster pieces against a backdrop of creamy avocado sauce. The vegetable tamale is another standout with its thick corn-forward dough. Many of these dishes are built with tortillas using masa from Nixtamal Tortilleria La Milpa de Rosa in Yonkers, New York, and the hearty, true-corn taste of the tortillas is one of the restaurant’s strengths.
The guacamole, with fresh mint replacing the typical onions and tomatoes, stands out even in an era when excellent guacamole is something we’ve come to expect from restaurants that offer it. There are also fruit and vegetable salads, of which the cucumber variety, flavored with mandarin and other spices, is a customer favorite, and light and refreshing this time of year.
For the past few years, Taibe has been taking annual trips to Mexico City and other areas of Mexico. He fell in love with the country and its cuisine on these trips, which are the inspiration for many of the flavors at Don Memo. “It very much reminds me of whatever I eat when I’m in Mexico City,” he says. “It’s a Mexican cuisine that isn’t necessarily available, at least here in Fairfield County.”
That inspiration extends beyond the food. In Mexico, agua fresca, a light fruit water, is a common drink. Don Memo offers various housemade agua frescas including a Jamaican flavor and avocado fresca. The latter also powers one of the restaurant’s most popular drinks: the avocado margarita. With just a hint of avocado flavor, this drink emphasizes the tequila and is one of the restaurant’s many winning cocktails. Another is the paloma, a tequila and soda drink that’s perfect for warm-weather drinking. There is also a robust tequila list.
For dessert, I choose the cuatro leches, which is made with four types of milk and ups the milk ante on the more common tres leches cake. This spongey treat is truly worthy of that much-maligned and oft-overused word “moist,” and is as good as any dessert I’ve had all year.
As of early August, the restaurant is not offering takeout and is instead focusing on its indoor and outdoor dining spaces. Outside is an inviting and comfortable area of strung lights overlooking downtown Westport. Inside is roomy with lofty ceilings.
Many restaurants have been forced to open during the pandemic due to plans that predate the arrival of the coronavirus, but Taibe made a choice to do so after the craziness had begun. This was possible thanks to his reputation in the state, but he says there are actually some silver linings to opening a new restaurant in these times.
“With 50 percent occupancy it allows us to do enough business to keep the wheels moving but never get overwhelmed,” he says. He adds that the restaurant has given him and his staff something positive to focus on. “It’s been a fun experience. The world is completely upside down right now, and I feel extremely fortunate that I’m able to do something that I love in the middle of probably the most stressful time of my life as a professional and as a person. I feel really fortunate that I get to come to work every day and do something new and exciting.”
90 Post Road E., Westport