Flavor Profile: Bar 323 in Westport Synthesizes New American, Classic Italian and a Lot More

Bar 323

323 Main St., Westport, (203) 222-0323, 323westport.com


When you walk through the back entry of Bar 323, the first thing you'll see are the photos of Westport. There's plenty to make old-timers sigh. "Ah, the Remarkable Book Store!" and "Harder Parking" plaza in the 1940s, when the parking was easy. And Main Street when it had a grocery store. There's a sense of time passing, of change, and how change, absorbed into the present, gains a sense of permanence. One photo shows the Congregational church being moved on the Post Road. My friend and I have lived around here for a long time, but we didn't know that the Congregational Church on the Post Road wasn't always where it is today.

Like many of these sights, the building that houses Bar 323 is a Westport landmark. On the corner of Main and Canal streets, it's less than a mile outside downtown. For the last 17 years, it was a neighborhood hangout called Bogey's. If you came to town in the mid-70s like Bar 323's co-owner Jay Faillance, you remember when it was Oliver's. Another photo on the wall pays homage to the days when the building housed the French restaurant Maud Chez Elle.

Bogey's was swamped by Hurricane Irene, which sent flood waters pouring into the basement, causing so much damage the owners went belly up. So when Faillance and his son Matt and business partner Jay Stasko decided to open a restaurant there, they had to start from the bottom up. The extensive renovation included replacing all the mechanical systems, tearing up six layers of old flooring, and exposing original beams of what was once, long ago, an onion barn.

The walls and beams are now painted a sandy off-white shade. The wood floors are distressed. Banquettes and upholstered chairs provide comfortable seating. The big U-shaped bar was crafted from maobi, a reddish hued, finely veined wood from West Africa.

Bar 323 opened in March, and about six weeks ago executive chef Christopher Vacca took over the kitchen. Vacca is a veteran of restaurants of famed chefs Freddy Giradet, David Burke and Pino Luongo. Before that (and way before he got a degree in English Lit from NYU, and another from the Culinary Institute of America), Vacca was standing on a milk crate, at age 4, helping his grandmother make pasta.

The menu at Bar 323 covers all the bases of a restaurant straddling the line between gastro pub, steakhouse and New American restaurant, with Italian influences too. Of course there's a burger — made of short ribs and brisket, served on a brioche bun. And there's prime dry-aged steaks and classic sides and sauces (I suggest the béarnaise). On a recent quiet lunchtime, a table ordered lobster rolls and fries. At another table, a solitary woman ordered a glass of wine, a Caesar salad and the roasted salmon.

We perused the menu and ordered craft beers. I enjoyed a Southern Tier IPA. A warm, crusty baguette was brought to our table with butter flavored with a touch of honey and a sprinkle of sea salt. Lively Spanish guitar played on the stereo. We were off to a good start, and decided to ask the chef to show us the dishes that define his style.

One of the newest dishes on the lunch menu is burrata and rapini ($13). The cheese and greens sit on a crunchy base of good grilled bread drizzled with olive oil. This hearty dish shows the chef's love of combining textures and contrasting flavors. The bread crunches, the cheese is soft, light and creamy. A slice of bacon adds salt and richness. There's a touch of sweetness from grape moscato and umami depth from fish sauce. All this is a foil for the bitter and spicy broccoli rabe, which is sprinkled with garlic chips.

The housemade tagliatelle ($16) stays true to the chef's Italian heritage. The pasta is handcut, and the tangle of pasta is a lesson in perfect texture. Tossed in a buttery sauce with fresh chanterelles and torn basil, it gets color and starch from fresh, raw peas.

Chef Vacca's potato gnocchi are so light people mistake them for ricotta gnocchi. When I tried them recently, they melted in the mouth, the most tender gnocchi I've ever eaten. They were draped in a lamb sugo and dusted with grated haloumi, a cheese similar to feta. The lamb had been braised with tomatoes, shallots, orange juice and star anise. Duck "chicharones" — a contemporary cheffy word for cracklings — added a crisp, delightfully fatty accent. My friend, who doesn't like lamb, loved this dish because the lamb flavor was so mild.

Knowing he had two adventurous eaters in the dining room, Chef Vacca decided to take a "whimsical risk" with soft shell crabs. He topped a potato cake with wilted arugula and sautéed soft shells, sauced with béarnaise and preserved kumquats. It was an over-the-top "play on crab Oscar," he said.

Desserts are made in-house. We tried a lovely plum tartlet in a puff-pastry shell. The black plums were sweetened with lavender honey, just enough to lend flavor but not too much to be cloying. Bar 323 stays open all day long, and I'd be tempted to stop in at 3 for coffee and dessert.


A plum tartlet in a puff-pastry shell. (Elizabeth Keyser photo)