2011 may not have been the most memorable for foodie folks in Fairfield County, but our collective Westport waistline won't soon forget. It was the year that brought us burgers, not just any beef patties but the best of the best (or worst for the health conscious crowd). Time will tell if both Five Guys and Shake Shack can co-exist but one thing is clear, our taste trend has evolved in 2012.
Don't worry, we don't expect you to quit cold turkey. The highly sophisticated The Whelk Westport in the newly renovated Saugatuck area serves up a mountain of killer crispy fries and a lean lamb burger. Neither however is what has packed the place since opening last month. My group of friends and I sitting at a high-top common-table stuffed ourselves with 'Small Plates' such as Squid Ink Cavatelli, Red Shrimp and Mexican Chorizo (looks like worms but tastes much better to my knowledge) and the Local Whelk and Shitake Middlins Risotto Style (my personal favorite) and the ultimate crowd pleaser the Warm Crab Fondue, Grits, Sea Urchin & Fronions. My tables' neighbors also said the oysters and soft shell crab were incredible, I nearly took a nibble off of their plate! As an added bonus owner Bill Taibe, keeping consistent with a growing trend and with sister restaurant Le Farm, is ensuring almost everything is locally acquired, see this link to the CT farms.
Photographs by Dave Briggs
Left to right: Squid Ink Cavatelli, Red Shrimp and Mexican Chorizo, Paloma del Diablo at The Whelk
Don't forget dessert at The Whelk
Truth be told though, our town was never short on fancy food but I'd argue severely lacking in the upscale watering hole department. That is where I'm conflicted as a journalist, who admits he's "buried the lead" and a (somewhat) upstanding member of the community, eager not to be branded a drunk! The atmosphere at Whelk is happening, the bar filled and my glass repeatedly empty… the devil made me do it! Only the devil is Paloma del Diablo which is chili infused tequila, fresh lime & grapefruit and the kicker a chili salt rim; it's essentially a margarita en fuego and it's excellenté. Custom cocktails have come a long way since the Sex & the City Cosmo and you won't be disappointed by the 6-pack of them here which also feature a Gin-Ger Lime Ricky and High & Dry which is whiskey, vermouth & yes pickled onions and if you're traditional they'll serve up a mean Manhattan. Once outdoor seating opens up in May I'd imagine this will become a prime target for the post train finance industry crowd to "unwind" before heading home or get an early start on the weekend.
For every affore mentioned Five Guys there's a Shake Shack and on this night the Whelk rival is Spotted Horse Tavern, or as some of you may know it, Southport's Gray Goose II. The tavern is on Church Street just feet from Main and part of an area upgrade soon to include the old Post Office. What's in the name? That is as understated as the restaurant itself, as random as me picking a horse at the track, the owner saw a picture while furniture shopping and the their second juggernaut was born, said picture is now on the dining room wall. The real action however is at the bar (and spilling out on to the sidewalk), which has been hopping since opening night. The Crown Jewel of this custom cocktail menu is one you typically enjoy one day a year, at this month's Kentucky Derby…the mint julep and no you don't need a fancy hat or a $2 bet to throw a few back! Other tasty concoctions include the White Carnation (if you're man enough and I am!) a Green Apple Cucumber Martini, Pomegranate Margarita and the Saketini which is strawberry infused saki, pictured here with said spotted horse. The scene is as diverse as the menu ranging from mid-20s to 50s and lively most nights of the week and the bar will stay open late on weekends, looking forward to drinking al fresco when they unveil outdoor seating in the next few weeks. I dig a restaurant that tweets so follow them @SpottedHorseCT on Twitter.
Left to right: Saketini, Scallops at Spotted Horse Tavern
If you're hungry then gallop back to a stable of comfy tables in the back and order up an original like the Dr. Pepper Grilled Pork Chop. The Goose chop has always been my go-to-dish and this one while entirely different is similarly delicious. Another daily double you'll find on both menu's are the scallops, again different presentations but with the same outstanding result this time with Sheri wine and capers and you can't go wrong with the Gray Goose Cobb Salad. Part of the success of both spots owned by Kevin McHugh, Pete Mennona and Tommy Febbraio is affordability with entrees topping out in the $20's. Now back to burgers, for those like me that can't resist the Tavern has two, one standard, the other being the dark horse Black Truffle Burger (order it rare) with sweet, caramelized onions and Bel Paese cheese served with peppery crispy fries. I'd say "bon appetit" but that's too pretentious for either spot, so CHEERS!
Have you visited these restaurants yet? What do you think? Where do you plan to go out this summer? Let me know in the comments below!
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Married to wife, Brandi, father of three; Emerson, William and Logan
Avid sports fan, fitness enthusiast, Westport resident going on 4 years