If you follow local food news at all, then you already know that Chef Bill Taibe is a rock star around these parts. If you don’t follow local food news, then I’m here to tell you that Bill Taibe is a rock star around these parts.
A James Beard Award Semifinalist for multiple years, Chef Taibe is the real deal. His three* [some signs indicate there’s another on the horizon!!] restaurants, all in Westport, CT, are so damn good, they’re not only worth traveling to, but I believe they rival some of the best of NYC dining. The Whelk, the oldest of the three operating restaurants (RIP Le Farm), is my personal favorite and especially shines in warmer weather. Read on for more details.
The Food is Legitimately Stellar
I’m visibly sad when locals tell me they haven’t yet been to the Whelk. It’s the kind of spot that, if I didn’t have young kids who need sitting (though I have in the past taken the kids along for lunch or an early dinner there), I’d eat at every week. Like at the other Bill Taibe spots, Jesup Hall and Kawa Ni, the food at the Whelk is so damn good and so much more interesting than what the majority of local suburban spots are offering. They’re diamonds in the rough.
When you come to the Whelk, come willing to try new things. The menu is made up mostly of shared plates and some larger plate options. There’s plenty on there for the picky eater - their Hand Cut Fries with Spicy Mayo are my favorite fries on earth and the Whelk's Fried Chicken Sandwich and Dry Aged Cheeseburger are both absolutely stellar. But Chef Taibe and Chef Anthony Kostelis know how to push envelopes and somehow, they always do so successfully.
A few dishes, like the Deviled Eggs with Fried Oysters and the Smoked Trout Dip have been on the menu at the Whelk since Day One. Other dishes are solely on the menu for the few days that the chefs have access to their ingredients. On my visit this week, we had a trout poached in chanterelle mushroom, and the waitress told us after the fact that those chanterelles were a gift dropped off earlier that morning from a foraging friend of the restaurant.
Besides ordering the swoon worthy aforementioned fries, I usually try to include the always insanely good Burrata preparation (currently, it's burrata with cherries, olives, Marcona almonds and vincotto) and whatever crudo our waiter recommends. This past visit, it was the sublime Scallop Crudo with yuzu, buttermilk, cucumber and onion. Also on the current menu, the salty, grilled Shishito Peppers and the Tomato Toast were both perfect for the hot weather. Maitake Mushrooms with nduja, garlic butter and egg yolk was a comfort food on crack.
Of the larger share plates, you cannot go wrong with the Squid Ink Cavatelli or the Shrimp and Grits, both of which are Whelk staples. And though larger in size and pricier, Norman’s Lobster Butter needs to be ordered at least once - it’s a heavenly dish. Chef Kostelis, like his predecessors, is absolutely killing it at the Whelk.
The Drinks and Atmosphere Add to The Equation
The Whelk’s beachy, relaxed-but-hip vibes put guests in an automatic good mood. The room is airy and bright, done mostly in whites and tans, with a long bar spanning virtually the entire right side of the room. Whether you’re there at 5:30pm or 8:30pm, guests are drinking, eating and being merry. It’s just a fun, happening spot and there’s even a “See and Be Seen” element going on there (albeit usually with guests aged 30 and up).
That kind of atmosphere means people are usually looking to drink. As Beverage Manager for all three Taibe restaurants, Craig Ventrice has put together a stellar list of cocktails, craft beers, spirits and wine to compliment the seafood heavy menu. I’m currently in love with the Frogger (vodka, cucumber, ginger agave and lime), but I also often go for white wine or light beers at the Whelk. Seriously, small plates of raw and lightly cooked seafood with a few glasses of Sauvignon Blanc is my ideal night!
Service at the Whelk is friendly and helpful. The wait staff knows the menu well and can help guide you through the many offerings, as well as assist with what goes well together and how many plates are enough. I have, in the past, noticed some guests mistakenly order just one shared plate as their entire meal, so do note that it’s very much a sharing menu, and you’re likely to leave hungry if you only order one dish per person.
Just Go Already
The Whelk doesn’t need any more positive press than it already gets, and I debated on whether there was any point to writing this. But I adore the Whelk and I figured it’d be weird, then, ignoring it on this little blog.
The TL;DR version of all this is, if you ask me where to eat on a warm night, the answer is always going to be the Whelk (and when the weather cools down, it’ll be Jesup Hall and Kawa Ni). Fingers crossed that the recent, ambiguous Instagram post by Chef Taibe means a sister spot of some sort is coming to Port Chester!