As we open the door to Taproot in Bethel, the smell of movie theater popcorn fills the air. It comes not from the kitchen but from the movie theater next door, with which Taproot shares a building, restrooms and parking lot. The aroma, a sweet mix of butter and hot corn, is surprising but not unwelcome; it smells like summer blockbusters, like indie arthouse films, like a movie about to start.
This is fitting because in a world where flashy restaurant openings are a dime a dozen, where small plates are often an excuse to overcharge patrons, Taproot has the culinary chops to be a blockbuster.
As the former chef at Kawa Ni in Westport, Jeff Taibe, who co-owns Taproot with Steph Sweeney, powered one of the best restaurants in Connecticut. His Kawa Ni menu was a steaming fusion of Japanese cuisine and ramen that helped redefine for Connecticut what those styles could be. At Taproot the focus is markedly different. Farm-fresh ingredients, and a freewheeling mix of French, American and other styles, have replaced the primarily Japanese culinary influences of Kawa Ni. But the quality and skillful execution of flavors remain the same. After several visits to the restaurant, I can unabashedly give it two thumbs (forks?) up.
269 Greenwood Ave., Bethel
Price range: Small plates $4-$15 (smoked bone marrow $15, lamb meatballs $15, beets and cukes $15); entrées $15-$28 (grass-fed burger $14, pig cheeks $25, roasted chicken $22)
Hours: Tue.-Thu., 5-9 p.m. Fri. & Sat. 5-10 p.m. Closed Sun. & Mon.
AMBIANCE Welcoming. The space is not huge, but it is open and roomy with lots of warmth. Chef Taibe can be seen through a window to the kitchen preparing many of the meals.
SERVICE Attentive and friendly. A return visit brought instant recognition from waitstaff. Sweeney, one of the owners, talked to every guest during our visits.
FOOD Creative and flavorful. Lots of different inspirations come together in excellent dishes that are influenced by what products are in season.
The pork cheeks entrée was soft and almost-meltingly tender. They were served on a plate drizzled with a dark stew-like broth that gave the dish a hearty, but not too hearty, flavor for summer or fall. During a previous visit, roasted chicken was equally tender and a beet and cucumber salad ordered from the small plates portion of the menu provided a harvest’s worth of fresh flavors.
Speaking of small plates, the shareable items are a focus of the restaurant. One in particular seems destined to be among the signature dishes: the smoked bone marrow. Taibe offered a similar dish at Kawa Ni that was legendary. At Taproot he uses a fish sauce caramel instead of the pickled clam jam, but what made the dish so addictive at Kawa Ni — the rich fatty smokiness of the marrow meat — remains unchanged.
Taibe and Sweeney are a couple. Sweeney worked the front of house at Kawa Ni, which is owned by Jeff’s brother, Bill Taibe, and as a manager at Jesup Hall, one of Bill’s other restaurants in Westport.
The couple chose to leave the Westport restaurant scene and open their own restaurant in Bethel, because it is Sweeney’s hometown and where they live now. Taibe has an 11-year-old son and Sweeney and Taibe had a baby together last year.
The theater where Taproot is located, Bethel Cinema, is a classic, little indie movie house that has long shown smaller and independent films. The restaurant space next door has been something of a revolving door of failed spots. But Taproot seems likely to beat that trend.
The warm space features vintage antiques, wood tables and a small bar in front of an open kitchen. On one wall there is a mural depicting deeply rooted vegetables. The word taproot refers to the strong, central root in a plant, and this mural illustrates the concept.
The space is not big but is open and roomy.
“Size-wise we were always looking for something on the smaller side so that Jeff can have a touch on everything in the kitchen and I can have a touch on everything out front,” Sweeney says. “We are so not fine-dining, tablecloth kind of people.”
Taibe adds, “It was kind of how we like to go out to eat, make it more of an extension of our home. A really casual place where you can come and hang out. When we go out we love sharing as much as possible.”
Prior to working at Kawa Ni, Taibe graduated from the French Culinary Institute and spent time working at restaurants in Singapore, Thailand and the Caribbean. More locally, his credits include Oak + Almond in Norwalk and Union Square Cafe in New York City.
These global travels and training add to the diversity of the Taproot menu. The lamb meatballs small plate is obviously Mediterranean in origin, but features a hint of mint flavorings, likely a nod to Taibe’s time in the Caribbean.
Lovers of specialty burgers will enjoy the grass-fed burger, featuring beef from Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors in New Jersey. It is topped with bacon and cheese from Arethusa Farm in Bantam. Instead of pickles, onion jam is used. To make the jam, onions are smoked with vinegar and brown sugar. The burger is served on a potato roll, which Taibe says is his favorite way to serve a burger despite the current trend of brioche and challah rolls.
The menu will change with the season. Taibe does a lot of pickling and fermenting of various vegetables, and those will continue to be worked into the menu. In addition, Taibe and Sweeney have some planned twists in the future, including ramen specials that will hearken back to Kawa Ni.
The beverage program is also strong, with several Connecticut beers available by the bottle and well-crafted cocktails including The Final Say, a delicious twist on the classic Chartreuse-powered cocktail, The Last Word.
Taproot is an excellent place to go before or after a film, but during the meal, you’ll likely forget you are in a building occupied by a movie theater. That is, until dessert. Taproot features desserts that are more about savory flavors than sweet ones. The standout we tried was the panna cotta. Creamy and savory with the slightest touch of sweetness, it is topped by — what else? — caramel popcorn.