When I eat somewhere for the first time, I always try a few of THAT place’s most popular, and sometimes limited dishes. Occasionally those sought after food items are sold out and that makes me angry. And you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry. Only this time I didn’t mind when it happened both times at one of Westport’s newest and hottest restaurants, The Whelk.
We’ll get to the sold out, but not disappointed story in a few, but first you need to know a bit about The Whelk. First, it has been busy and my visit was no different, I saw a packed dining room, community table, patio, and bar. Even reservations were tough to come by on the weekends. My guest and I managed to slide in at a fashionably late time of 9:15 on a Saturday night. A common sense tip that applies here and everywhere…reserve early and you’ll get your desired time.
True story number two, The Whelk believes in everything local. They use fruits, veggies, and meat from local farms in Connecticut including Sport Hill Farm (Easton), Urban Oaks Organic Farm (New Britain), Holbrook Farm (Bethel), Millstone Farm (Wilton), and Arethusa Farm (Litchfield). Their seafood comes from Norm Bloom and Sons in Norwalk and the non-local, Sunburst Trout Farms in North Carolina.
Because of the local thing, my expectations were big, and I heard good buzz about this seafood centric restaurant. One bragged about menu item in the lead up to my visit was a cocktail dubbed “The Barnacle.” The Barnacle consists of Plymouth Gin, Yellow Chartreuse, St. Germaine, Bitter Truth Celery Bitters, Bitterman’s Xocolatl Mole Bitters, fresh lime, and on top of that it was barrel aged by nearby neighbor Jeff Marron at Saugatuck Grain & Grape. Obviously that seemed like a great starter and was it ever. The Barnacle was easy to drink and the celery and lime really came through. I could have easily downed three or four but walking afterwards would have been an adventure.
To soak up The Barnacle you have to snag a few appetizers, right? The Whelk features many raw choices like oysters (some are from our area, Cape Cod, MA and Snug Harbor, RI) and clams, as well as deviled eggs, blackened pig tails, and what we chose, the hand-cut French fries with smoked mayo and ketchup for dipping, that were ever so thin, but crispy and severely addicting.
Now, here’s where that sold out stuff came into play. I badly wanted their pan fried pigs head because if you’ve ever had it you know what I mean. It’s basically the tender meat from the cheeks and other areas of the swine formed into a “cake.” Even though the menu said “limited” near it, I prayed but to no avail. If it’s ever on the menu when you’re there, don’t be afraid and take a chance, it’ll be similar to pulled pork. Instead I went with the cherry glazed pork belly. It was great with the cherry glaze since you get the sweetness from the sauce and the salty/fatty goodness from the pork. Disappointed about the pigs head being sold out? No way, it just gives me something to try next time.
For dinner we knew one fish dish was a must. Immediately I knew I wanted the roasted striped bass, but again, it was sold out, but I picked another winner, the cornmeal fried catfish with summer slaw. Now, I haven’t eaten much catfish in my life but I know this, marinating it in buttermilk takes away that muddy flavor of the fish, and two, cornmeal frying it is the way to go. The Whelk does the buttermilk thing and guess what? No muddy taste whatsoever. The sauce on the catfish had a nice smokiness and the vinegar based slaw meshed well with the fish. We also sampled, no, correct that, we destroyed the hangar steak with German potato salad and grilled cucumbers. The steak was extremely tender and a perfect pink in the middle, and the potato salad was a good creamy compliment to the steak. If steak or catfish isn’t your forte, The Whelk has two burgers (beef and lamb), a fried chicken sandwich, and fish dishes ranging from tuna to salmon, and even a southern influenced shrimp & grits.
While this all seems like a major pig-out fest, you have to do dessert if you liked the entrées, so we weren’t done. If something light, refreshing, and with a little sweetness is what you seek, try the melon granita with fresh watermelon and a few green tomatoes. If you’re a dessert maniac, bread pudding. The Whelk’s bread pudding came with salted caramel, peanuts, and vanilla ice cream. I have no other way to describe this other than it was like someone baked a Snickers bar, just the best Snickers bar ever.
If you’re worried about price, it’s really not that serious. For all this food our bill came to $135 and take into account that the drinks were $15 a pop. Smaller plates range from $5-around $20 and entrées go for $14-$36.
While the prices were comparable to similar restaurant concepts, my favorite qualities about The Whelk were the ideas of “local” and “fresh.” They definitely lived up to the hype. Another area I found commendable was the staff. Everyone was friendly and our waitress, Stephanie knew all about the menu and especially the way everything was prepared. I’m positive my dinner guest that evening would return, especially for the fries, and I certainly cannot wait to try more of what The Whelk has to offer. And because I was denied due to popularity, bring on that pan-fried pigs head!
575 Riverside Avenue
Westport, CT 06880