Editor’s Note: The Whelk opened late January 2012
By Elizabeth Keyser
Bill Taibe has taken to the sea. Known for trekking to local farms to get sustainable, seasonal produce, the chef-owner of the heralded restaurant Le Farm is about to open The Whelk. The new restaurant in Westport will feature sustainable seafood from local and regional sources.
Taibe and The Whelk’s chef de cuisine Dan Kardos recently boarded Norm Bloom’s oyster boat and sailed out into Long Island Sound. Bloom is a third-generation oysterman in Norwalk who has branded local blue point oysters as “Copps Island oysters” after one of the Norwalk Islands near where he seeds, farms and harvests oysters. As Taibe and Kardos watched Bloom’s crew haul in the harvest, the importance of replenishing the beds was underscored.
For Taibe, sustainability is also about relationships, getting to know the people whose hard, physical labor brings food to his kitchen. “Norm is one of the most humble men,” he says, “I was so impressed with his approach and intelligence.”
Sourcing seafood is not as straight-forward as getting produce from a farm. “Knowing who is raising [the seafood] is hard,” Taibe says. But with Copps Island oysters the source will be “boat-to-table.” “Norm wants us to take them right off his boat,” Taibe says. A direct source for Connecticut lobsters will be Justin Cummings at Nice Tail Distribution (www.nicetaildistribution.com). Cummings is a “an ex-cook of mine,” who showed Taibe that Connecticut lobsters are nothing to sniff at – they make good eating. “I was impressed with the taste of the Connecticut lobsters. They were super-sweet,” he says. Taibe will supplement with Maine lobsters as needed.
Scallops will come from Stonington, Conn. Taibe will venture farther up the coast to Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury, Mass for their bivalves. Browne Trading Co., a company based in Portland, Maine (www.brownetrading.com), will provide a wider range of responsibly sourced seafood, including “great smoked fish,” Taibe says.
Sunburst Trout Farms (www.sunbursttrout.com) in the mountains of Western North Carolina will provide hot- and cold-smoked trout, which they raise without antibiotics or hormones in pristine mountain water that runs 20 feet per minute – double the industry standard for farmed fish. Sunburst tests the fish to insure that they are free of PBCs, mercury and pesticides.
Right now Taibe’s working on The Whelk’s menu, which he sees as something that will keep evolving. The food will be the opposite of Le Farm’s rich, meaty sensibility. The raw bar will bring clean, clear flavors. The hot dishes, which Taibe describes as “medium-sized plates,” will bring “different and fun takes” on classics like oysters Rockefeller. Look for variations on Le Farm’s addictive clam butter. At The Whelk it might be poured over fried pork belly. Many dishes will be cooked on the plancha – a flattop grill – and seasoned with “spicy flavors, mayo, lemon.” Looking forward, Taibe says “I’d like to get to the point of doing fish charcuterie.” No matter what, The Whelk will evolve. “What it will be three weeks from now will be different from what it will be three months from now,” he says. Meat specials, for instance, could be based on what Ryan Fibiger, at Saugatuck Craft Butchery, just across the plaza, has available.
Produce served at The Whelk will come from the group of local farms with whom he has trusting relationships – Sport Hill, Millstone, Holbrook and Urban Oaks.
Sustainability is a theme in the interior design of The Whelk as well. The Whelk’s window-lined room, which gets sunshine throughout the day, seats 54 and has a spare, industrial-chic design. The view of the Saugatuck River and I-95 spanning it high overhead bring together the sensibility of nature and industry. Inside the restaurant (there will be outdoor dining in summer), a row of high-topped tables down the center of the room are topped with reclaimed white and red oak. They are supported by sturdy metal bases painted dark green. Taibe says they are from an old printing press. Metal stools were sourced through John Weiss of Lillian August, who had them fabricated in Philadelphia. Custom wood benches were crafted by a carpenter in Rowayton to Taibe’s request for a“English park bench” look. A long white marble bar and a wall of white subway tiles add to The Whelk’s clean look. The dominant work of art is a graphic black-and-white design that turns out to be framed sections of an antique pirate’s flag.
The wine list is overseen by co-owner and general manager Massimo Tullio, formerly of Fat Cat Pie (where he remains a co-owner). “He knows more about wine than anyone,” Taibe says, “And he has a fun, young approach to wine that’s not stuffy.”
Tulio is one of the few new staff members. Taibe finds “like minded people” who follow him from restaurant to restaurant. Kardos worked for Taibe at Relish. Since then Kardos has cheffed at Harvest Supper in New Canaan and at Bar Rosso in Stamford. Taibe is proud of The Whelk’s “monstrous” gleaming kitchen, a welcome change from Le Farm’s tiny kitchen. And The Whelk’s kitchen has windows. Even the “stunning” dishwashing station has windows.
It’s hard not to imagine that the place will be a hit. How many of his customers will choose The Whelk because the seafood is sustainably raised or harvested? Taibe feels that sustainability is a concern with a core group of his customers. Then, “There’s a percentage who could care less,” he admits, “but there is a percentage of people who are teetering and I have conversations with them. The numbers are multiplying,” he says.
The Whelk will solidify Saugatuck as Westport’s new dining destination. “Fairfield County needs a fun, mature place to go out and be communal,” Taibe says.
“This is a slow approach,” he says, of the new restaurant, “a humble approach. I don’t have all the answers.” One thing can be expected, however. “We’ll try to achieve greatness every day.”
575 Riverside Avenue
Westport, CT 06880
Call for reservations.
Opening date TBA. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday for dinner. Sundays and lunch will be added as the restaurant hits its stride. No reservations accepted.