Jesup Hall in Westport seems poised for success.
It is owned by Bill Taibe, one of Connecticut’s most celebrated chefs and owner of Westport’s Kawa Ni, The Whelk and Le Farm, a critically acclaimed farm-to-table restaurant that closed in 2015. Jesup Hall occupies the impressive 1907 Old Town Hall building in the heart of Westport’s downtown, with a dark brick exterior and an open interior with lots of cathedral-like natural light. To top it off, the restaurant has eye-catching, statement-making cuisine powered by locally grown and, in some cases, foraged ingredients.
So, it’s a surprise when Taibe says the place is not what he had in mind, not originally, anyhow.
“At first we thought we were going to go with this tavern approach. Burgers and big salads and so on and so forth,” Taibe says. “We started to get closer [to opening] and even opened the first week, and I came to the conclusion very quickly that I just don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how to simplify. I don’t think we complicate, but I don’t know how to do a family-friendly, tavern-style restaurant and menu because I do over-think things sometimes and focus on quality as opposed to volume.”
90 Post Road E., Westport
Price range: Appetizers: $8-$20 (fiddlehead ferns $18, porchetta and clams $17, braised beef and snails $15); entrées: $17-$48 (Diva burger $22, pan-fried half-chicken $28); desserts: $10.
Hours: Tue.-Thu. 5-9:30 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 5-10:30 p.m.
Closed Sun. & Mon.
Ambiance: Housed in a 1900s building, Jesup Hall has a bright and open floor plan. The restaurant was originally conceived as a tavern, and though the food has evolved beyond the tavern concept, the feel and welcoming atmosphere of a tavern remains.
Service: Attentive and helpful. Our waiter exhibited an impressive knowledge of the frequently changing menu and made several recommendations we enjoyed. Jesup Hall is still a relatively new restaurant but we saw no kinks in the service.
Food: Diverse and ingredient driven, the menu is constantly changing and the food is difficult to label but consistently intriguing.
After a few weeks, several sleepless nights and some deep culinary soul searching, Taibe says he realized what his new restaurant was all about. Turning to his chef de cuisine at the restaurant, Daniel Sabia, he said, “This is Le Farm with a bar. That’s what we’re going to do.”
The result is an ingredient- and chef-driven restaurant with bold, complex and hard-to-classify flavors. Fiddlehead ferns and asparagus, an appetizer the night of our visit, was a kaleidoscope of vibrant colors, with bright green Connecticut-foraged ferns and diced asparagus resting on a cream-colored beef tallow. Another appetizer special featured pinkish-red radishes with hues as vibrant as a technicolor film.
But don’t let talk of fiddlehead ferns and radishes give you the wrong impression: the food at Jesup Hall may be delicately prepared, but it is far from dainty. Portions of main courses are large and the food is rich and heavy in a good way. “Our food is salty,” Taibe says without apology. “We are all about concentration of flavor.”
Chilled porchetta and local clams were devilishly decadent, skillfully employing the mixture of pork and shellfish that is common in Portuguese cuisine but less common here. A similar and equally intriguing pairing could be found in the braised beef and snails, served with barley, spring onion, preserved tomato and truffle.
The burgers once envisioned as the star of the restaurant remain on the menu, but instead of seven there are now three varieties. The Diva is recommended as a staff favorite. Served smothered in Arethusa Diva cheese, accurately described on the menu as a “dank” and “funky” cheese from Arethusa Farm in Bantam, two burger patties are topped with horseradish, sauerkraut, onion and aioli. The horseradish and sauerkraut cut through this messy burger that is designed to be a tasty and towering culinary colossus fueled by fat and salt. Its $22 price tag might give some burger lovers pause, but it is a generous serving size and worth it. An accompanying bone marrow beef jus offered for dipping is $6, and while a dining companion loved it, I found it unnecessary. It also brings the price of the burger to a difficult-to-justify-no-matter-how-much-you-like-it fee of $28.
The pan-fried half-chicken is another winning entrée. Served with farro verde (rice-like grains), artichokes, leeks, ham broth and fried bread, it has a crispy butter-basted skin and a comfort-food familiarity.
Taibe says the desserts at Jesup Hall are about more than just sweetness. “I want sweet but I want salty as well,” he says.
The proof of this statement is most certainly in the pudding, in this case a thick butterscotch pudding with a gritty array of flavors, from mild saltiness to just a hint of sweetness. The same is true of the pistachio cake, which also featured far more flavors than sweetness alone.
The food is matched by a strong beverage program, with a good selection of beer and wine and a showstopping cocktails list anchored by classics such as martinis and negronis, as well as house specialties including the Hemingway daiquiri, a refreshing twist on the traditional daiquiri with rum, grapefruit, lime and maraschino.
Speaking of twists, the bill includes a 3 percent charge that goes to the kitchen staff. This is a noble effort to help provide more money to the often-underpaid backbone of every restaurant. However, we would prefer this percentage be added to the prices upfront, so we’d know the actual price of each item without having to do the math ourselves.
When it comes to classifying the genre of food served at the restaurant, Taibe doesn’t have a simple answer. “I don’t think there’s a label to it. It’s global in a way. It’s not fusion. It’s American. It’s driven in French technique. It’s driven in Spanish and French technique,” he says. “The food is us. I love food. I love the people that produce it for us. It’s more based on its relationships and our philosophy in wanting to be really good at what we do. I don’t know how you write that; unfortunately we haven’t figured out our tagline yet.”