There’s a refreshing touch of whimsy that makes dining at Westport’s new Le Penguin such an entertaining experience. We expected that veteran restaurateurs Antoine Blech and Anshu Vidyarthi, the duo behind Le Penguin Greenwich and Le Fat Poodle Old Greenwich, would turn out stellar bistro fare. What surprised us is how they were able to create a cozy space that walks the line between serious and light-hearted, deftly tapping into a void in the Westport dining scene in the spot that formerly housed Blue Lemon.
Upon entering, you pass through a cheery vestibule adorned with playful penguins, hand-painted by Blech, who is also an artist and musician. A few steps inside the blue-and-white tiled bar area, you get the sense that “this is going to be a good time.” You are right, from your first Penguin Martini (orange vodka with Lillet) or Fizzy Penguin (sparkling rosé with a splash of St. Germaine).
In the nearby dining room, designer Lynn Morgan’s interiors pop with fresh tangerine-colored grasscloth walls, framed by glossy marine-blue trim. Crisp navy-and-white striped upholstered banquettes modulate the din.
At its opening in September, Le Penguin opened up its casual outdoor patio. Gentle breezes made this a delightful spot for al fresco lunch and dinner, with daily specials hand-written on a massive chalkboard and tables covered with butcher paper and hand-painted salt and pepper shakers. Out on the patio, diners sipped chilled rosé from Provence.
But the real reason we were here was to sample the stellar French fare, a modern riff on bistro classics, which means the choices are a lot lighter than the heavy French fare you remember, and local and seasonal ingredients play a starring role.
Our mission was to test out the most popular signature dishes and walk you through our favorites. We started with the aforementioned chilled rosé, which turned out to be an ideal foil for an array of dishes, from fish to red meat. If rosé is not your pleasure, Le Penguin’s wine list offers an array of choices by the glass and an impressive list of French bottles, from a modest Pinot Blanc to bank-busting St. Emilion Grand Cru for very special occasions.
We put ourselves in the capable hands of Chef Jorge Escobar, executive chef at both locations, who integrates subtle touches, like pea shoots and miso broth, into his lineup. He kicked things off with the Escargots de Bourgogne. To our minds, these are a study in simplicity: six plump snails, prepared with butter, garlic and parsley—served on a traditional escargot plate and topped with tiny rounds of puff pastry…sublime. Speaking of puff pastry, be sure to order a Roasted Tomato Tart for the table, a pizzette-like starter well suited for sharing.
The Frisée aux Lardons is a generous frisée salad encircled with lardons (crispy cubes of thick-cut bacon), and embellished with a perfectly poached egg spiced with a slight dusting of espalette (red pepper). This is just one of the appealing salad choices on the menu at lunch, from a delicious Lobster Cobb to a traditional Niçoise. If salad is not what you have in mind, you’ll find plenty of more decadent options, from the classic Croque Monsieur to the generous Le Pingouin Burger (Kobe beef blend, Comté cheese, pommes frites).
Notable main dishes include a wonderful Crispy Red Snapper with a piquant sauce vierge (a French sauce made with olive oil, lemon juice, diced tomato and fresh herbs) over a bed of wild red quinoa. We were also blown away by an extremely tender Poulet Cajun, grilled chicken breast in Cajun spices, sliced and fanned out with a light beurre blanc sauce and a side of crispy pommes frites.
The Moules-Frites, a sizeable bowl of fresh mussels in white wine, shallots, garlic and fresh thyme, is another good shareable classic offering. You’ll enjoy sopping up the broth with French bread. (The Moules also come in a saffron-cream rendition.)
Perhaps our favorite entrée from recent visits is the perfectly pink rack of lamb—a dish that would make Jacques Pépin weep. These four faultless, mustard-crusted lamb chops on the bone are served atop a bed of slow-cooked, savory white beans in a tomato-based reduction with an excellent Provençal tomato on the side. Magnifique!
In two visits, we barely scratched the surface of the menu. We can’t wait to try the Tartare de Thon (tuna tartare, avocado and lime), the Salad de Betteraves (beets, goat cheese and hazelnuts), the Crispy Duck Breast and the Country Pâté, and we have yet to have room for desserts.
But we’ll be back. The impeccable service here is guided by a seasoned duo who honed their hosting and management skills at Manhattan’s Le Bilboquet, Le Comptoir and Le Colonial, The Ivy at The Shore in Santa Monica, and l’escale in Greenwich, among other distinguished establishments.
Before you visit, here’s a tip: Weekends are busy and birthdays are a true party, so reserve in advance, and let your server know if you are celebrating a special occasion (cue the music!). Also, Le Penguin is located within easy walking distance to the Westport Country Playhouse, so you can enjoy your meal and walk it off on your way to catch a show.
7 Sconset Square, Westport