Bill Taibe isn't a sentimental guy. But there's something about cooking at the James Beard house. It gives him goose bumps. "I think about all the people who have cooked in that kitchen," he says. Taibe has been nominated for a James Beard Award – Best Chef, Northeast — for the third time. Cue the Susan Lucci jokes. (Bun Lai of Miya's in New Haven is the other Connecticut chef up for the award. The winner will be announced May 6.)
Taibe's two restaurants, Le Farm and The Whelk, both in Westport, have ardent fans who put Taibe and his restaurants at the top of the "Best of" lists. From the moment it opened in January 2012, The Whelk was jammed, 150 covers a night. In summer, outdoor seating swelled the numbers to 200 a night. When it opened, there were just 16 dishes showcasing Taibe's ingredient-driven take on New England seafood. Today, the menu's three times as long and the new buzz is off, yet The Whelk is still buzzing. On a recent Wednesday, as early evening sunlight streamed through the windows and Spanish guitar music played on the stereo, there was nowhere else we'd rather be than this attractive restaurant, with its clean, spare oyster-bar vibe. The hostess led a casually yet expensively clad long-legged family to their table, while at the bar two men, just off the train, sporting tailored suits, sipped glasses of wine and perused the menu.
The "libations" menu lists 21 beers, and the two bartenders know them all. I wanted something hoppy and not too malty. They guided me to Sixpoint Brewery (Brooklyn)'s Bengali Tiger. It came in a can, which seemed just right. My friend ordered the "Snoop" ($12) cocktail, which was a refreshing, slightly astringent and not-too-sweet mix of gin, black-currant juice, rosemary and cava.
The long, thick, white marble bar is an eating bar. The bartender put place mats — decorated with color pages from The New York Times — before us. The oyster selection offers local, northeastern and northwestern oysters, but we want to try the cooking from the often-changing menu of bar snacks and medium plates. Seafood is the theme, but Taibe's love of pork is evident. There's bacon in the barbecued clams, country ham in the shrimp and grits, and pigs' ears in the lettuce, beet and radish salad.
The dish that's come to define The Whelk – that's achieved cult status, some say — is the fried oyster on deviled eggs with onion pickles ($16). It's an inspiration that came to Taibe in the middle of service one night. There's a retro look to this dish, the pink-hued onion draped against deep-fried oysters. As we crunch into the oysters, their cornmeal coating adds an oddly pleasing sandy seashore reference that gives way to the curry-scented egg yolks, which are like a thick, creamy sauce, followed by the counterpoint of brine and pickle. This dish evoked, for me, the Chesapeake Bay. Another seaside favorite, fish sticks, arrives adorned in winter slaw and micro-cilantro and green-tomato tartar sauce. The moist white fluke is encased in a light beer batter. Roasted Brussels-sprout leaves added sweet and bitter flavors.
How often do you see pigs' tails on a bar menu? They arrive and, no mistaking them, they are pigs' tails — on the bone. Deep fried, glistening, tasting of sweet-sour barbecue sauce. The guys sitting at the end of the bar, who've already ordered beers, oysters, pork belly and ham hock torchon with sauce gribiche, see the pigs' tails and immediately order a plate. We start talking about the food. One of the guys is a chef, visiting from Las Vegas. He and his friends are raving over the squid ink cavatelli. They insist we try it, spooning some onto our plates. Here's the unexpected "Wow!" It's highly flavored and spicy, a mélange of red shrimp, chorizo and tomato. It tastes deeply of the sea, a sausage-flavored sea, and the house-made cavatelli has a wonderful texture.
Taibe would have liked that moment — a moment of community created over his food. One of the things he's most proud of at The Whelk is that the communal table that runs down the center of the room has been accepted.
My main complaint? Those hip, retro, industrial bar stools are the most uncomfortable seats I've ever sat on. Hard. With no place to perch your feet. But that could be part of the plan, the subtle art of turnover that Taibe's business partner Massimo Tullio brought from his years of hospitality at Fat Cat Pie. Our friends at the end of the bar leave soon after, full of compliments for the food.
Whether or not Taibe wins the Beard award in May, he says he is satisfied as a chef (15 years as an executive chef) and sees himself transitioning into the role of restaurateur. He is proud of his "extremely talented" chef de cuisine, Andy Hayes, and the front-of-the-house team. The greatest success? Knowing they can run the show without him. Taibe threw a birthday party for his mother recently (elsewhere) and, he said, he knew that while he was away, everything at the restaurants would go OK.