Relationships reign at the whelk

In the changing tides of the restaurant industry, The Whelk is relatively nascent at 15 months. But spend an evening there and you’ll swear it’s been a fixture on Saugatuck’s riverfront for generations. The key is Chef Bill Taibe’s mindful marriage of caliber and character that makes one a homey haven for feasting.

Anchoring the developing New England-style Saugatuck Center, this beacon of artisanal eats cozies up against the docks like a lighthouse for famished mariners with a taste for fresh sea fare. Offering casual comfort with bench seating, communal tables and charming chalkboards decorated by hand, The Whelk also presents diners with a requisite list of daily-delivered oysters, clams and caviar plus more than two-dozen small and large plates prepared with Taibe’s top technique and signature ingredient ingenuity.

“We don’t overdo it,” he says. “It’s about what’s new, what’s fun, what would put a smile on our face if we were eating it. What would highlight its flavors without changing or altering it?”

This is not the place to find fried calamari. It’s more like the place to find cornbread-fried oysters on deviled eggs, warm peekytoe crab fondue over grits with green tobiko and fried onions (“fronions’) or squid ink cavatelli with red shrimp and possibly the most spirited chorizo in the tristate area. But don’t mistake unconventional for pretentious. Taibe is less white tablecloth and more reclaimed wood tabletop. And don’t mistake authenticity for simplicity. Taibe is less sculptural plating and more “California sloppy” – if you’re the type to call Chez Panisse sloppy.

“I have been every kind of chef you can imagine,” he says. “I have plated things, squished things, used tweezers and been so concerned with the presentation of the dish. I’ve realized that there’s such beauty in a natural expression.”

That’s not to say chef and his crew don’t have fun concocting in the kitchen.

“We’re trying to make the most delicious pork sandwich in the world,” says The Whelk’s chef de cuisine Andy Hayes with relative nonchalance. To encourage creativity, Taibe and his team thrive on lack of confines.

“You go through this evolution as a chef – cooking to prove, then cooking for people, then cooking for yourself,” he says. “When you get to the point of cooking for yourself, that’s where I think chefs get most successful, because they’re not worrying about anybody else. We design for ourselves, we cook for ourselves. I don’t have limitations on what we do.”

Taibe has also broken out of catchphrase cuisine. He rebukes trendy terms “local” and “organic” and even goes beyond “farm-to-table,” or ocean-to-table, as it were. Instead, he’s coined the term “relationship cuisine” to highlight the fishers and farmers that make his dishes extraordinary. From this perspective, Taibe really acts as a seasoned producer assembling his finest players under the ideal conditions to let them shine.

“Everything comes to us with quality being the first thing in mind,” he says. “We put ourselves with business with people that feel just as passionate about it as we do, and if you’re really concerned about me and my quality and my business, then in turn I’m going to pay that respect. That’s kind of lost somehow, someway in the restaurant business, and we really focus a lot of attention to that.”

With The Whelk’s launch, Taibe, who also heads Westport’s renowned Le Farm, made a career change to restaurateur – a big-picture position overseeing both menus, preparations and inventory (with a steady flow of iced-coffee to keep him going), then trusting his master kitchen staff to execute. Though not always physically in the kitchen at dinnertime, his philosophy is ever-present – to stock the best products he can find, then highlight the prized ingredients with time-tested technique.

Lucky for landlubbers circa Connecticut, city life doesn’t draw this Queens boy – a self-proclaimed homebody who coaches his sons’ sports teams and keeps home and garden in Wilton. “You have a larger national audience in New York City, but that was never why I’ve done this,” he says. “I just fell in love with cooking and I wanted to be really good at it.”

Through honing his talents at Fairfield’s Wildfire, G/R/A/N/D, Relish, Napa & Co. and, of course, his Westport hotspots, he’s earned three “excellent” ratings from The New York Times, a bevy of statewide accolades and has been named a semifinalist for Best Chef: Northeast by the James Beard Foundation in 2011 and 2012.

But success hasn’t brought complacency. Rather, Taibe and his troupe “work nervous.”

“We are humble,” he says. “We are apologetic. We are always concerned that yesterday wasn’t good enough.”

The Whelk itself is a humble creature, yet Taibe managed to elevate the provincial bivalve to star status when a matter of days before the eatery’s opening, a foodie blogger pressed him to name his (then, working titled) Oyster Bar in Saugatuck. With “no thought,” he says, the chef peeked at his computer screen where he had pulled up old English whelk preparations and a split-second decision gave birth to the name. Serendipitously, it turns out, the title reinforces his relationship with the sea.

“Whelks are, especially in this area, all over the waters going out into the Sound,” Taibe says. “Oystermen hate them. They’re also known as oyster drills, because they eat oysters.”

Clientele does the same in droves. Friday and Saturday reservations are booked a month out. To keep up with demand, Taibe orders oysters from the Long Island Sound every morning, has more over-nighted from Massachusetts, with more still coming in from western waters like the Washington state’s Hood Canal.

The self-described shameless shopper admits to the thrill of engaging with his suppliers, whether ordering oysters from the Sound, calling North Carolina for the best trout and Rhode Island for the best scallops, or taking his staff on field trips to local farms to flip through seed catalogs or plan pig programs. In May, he’ll take crews from both restaurants to a farm to put in a full day’s work during the first harvest.

“This morning,” he says, “I had them in 12 degrees outside at Millstone Farm. We were happy as could be.”

The Whelk, 575 Riverside Avenue, (203) 557-0902, thewhelkwestport.com

For other fine dining destinations in Westport, visit:
Le Farm (American), 256 Post Road E.
The Spotted Horse (American), 26 Church Lane
Pink Sumo (Sushi), 4 Church Lane
The Dressing Room (American), 27 Powers Court

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