My Top Five+ Fairfield County CT Dishes from 2013

2013 was an amazing year for food lovers in Fairfield County…several great restaurants opened, several chefs moved and are now creating incredible meals in new locations, several more restaurants announced their openings and I cannot wait.

During the year I enjoyed hundreds of courses in Connecticut and on my travels. With all of those flavors and textures, it was an incredibly difficult task in choosing my five favorite Fairfield County dishes for 2013. In fact, I did not since I couldn’t whittle the last one from this list, so it is six, plus three special categories.

Here are my favorite dishes from 2013:

  • elm – The “Tagliatelli Neri” is over the top umami heaven. The dish begins with hand-made cuttlefish ink pasta topped with Peekeytoe crab, sea urchin, sea urchin butter, Calabrian chili, garlic bread crumbs and brightened with Meyer lemon juice and oil. The flavors dance on the palate and textures from the silky pasta to the crunchy garlic bread crumbs, are like none I experienced anywhere else.
  • Match – “Pho” is an incredible Vietnamese soup that Fairfield County needs to embrace. The broth is made from oxtails, ginger, onion, cinnamon, and star anise. When served, thinly sliced rib eye is added and cooked and then finished with cilantro, noodles and Sriracha. This dish is absolutely magical in its complexity of flavors and textures.
  • South End – “Nonna’s Meatballs” are comprised of pork and veal (that’s right, no beef) that are lightly mixed with tons of sheep’s milk ricotta and Parmesan cheese, then lightly fried and cooked in a crushed tomato sauce. The soft and tender texture of South End’s meatballs separates them from all of the others…they are fantastic.
  • Nola –The “Poached Lobster & Cornbread Waffle” is one of my favorite combinations in the area with butter-poached lobster, Queso Fresco cheese, topped with a brown sauce served with sweet, crispy waffles. The outstanding flavors are complemented by the best brown sauce north of Mr. B’s Bistro in the French Quarter.
  • Mama’s Boy – The “Shrimp and Grits” just keep getting better. Perfectly prepared U15 white shrimp, red peppers, scallions, and Tasso sit atop Tennessee sourced grits and finished with a simple garlic butter, white wine, and cream sauce. The grits are my favorite and when paired with the shrimp create an outstanding dish.
  • Bar Sugo – The “Spaghetti Neri” includes squid ink pasta, smoked tomato sauce, shrimp, bread crumbs and Bottarga. The pasta and shrimp are complemented by the smokiness and spiciness of the tomato sauce, but the entire presentation is elevated by the Bottarga, which adds a delightful brininess to the dish.

Top Hamburger – The Whelk – Over 70 hamburgers comprised my 2013 Hamburger search and The Whelk’s hamburger was my favorite. Full of rich flavor, encased in a great bun and topped with some great cheese, onions and house made pickles.

Top Bolognese – Cava Wine Bar – My colleague at CTBites, Lou Gorfain, and I scoured lower Fairfield County for our Bolognese round-up and my personal favorite was Cava’s Gnocchi with Bolognese. What set this apart from the others was the soft, ricotta gnocchi that were pillows of deliciousness.

Top Pizza – Locali – This newcomer uses age-old pizza-making techniques, San Marzano DOP tomatoes and house made mozzarella. The flavors, texture and the perfect amount of char from the wood burning oven produce some of the best Neapolitan pizza this side of the Campo dei Fiori.

#1 Hamburger in Southwest CT – The Whelk (Westport)

One year, hundreds of miles, close to 30 pounds of meat, thousands of fries…searching for the ten best hamburgers. While others merely create lists of hamburgers from websites, I devoured almost 70 different varieties in as many locations. And at the end of this long and winding road stood Chef Bill Taibe’s beef burger served at The Whelk in Westport.

bl2 WhelkInteresting that a restaurant named after a mollusk with 90% of cuisine devoted to some of the best fish and seafood anywhere also delivers the best burger in the area. But with Bill Taibe overseeing the cuisine, nothing should surprise you.

Have the table start with an assortment of oysters and clams and then move to the main dish. For the carnivores, just sit back and enjoy the best burger around while the rest of the table can enjoy some of the best and creative seafood around. It’s a beautiful thing.

Owner Chef Bill Taibe and Chef Geoff Lazlo created my favorite burger this year, combining rich flavored meat, sweet pickles, cry baby Swiss cheese, two varieties of bacon, crisped onions and onion mayo on a brioche bun. The dry aged blend of short rib, brisket and chuck from Craft Saugatuck Butchery was fantastic. The cheese covered, thick patty sat atop two different varieties of bacon that added saltiness and smokiness, while slices of sweet pickles, a slice of frisée and the onion accented mayo brought additional flavors and textures. Sitting atop the plump patty were handful of crisped onions. These were all encased in a sweet brioche bun. The flavors were overwhelmingly delicious with smoky, salty, sweet all complementing the deep, rich flavors of the beef with the crisped onions adding a fun and crunchy texture. The hamburger was served with shoestring fries that were perfectly prepared and salted.

See the entire list of the Best 10 Hamburgers from Greenwich to New Haven at http://www.CTbites.com

http://www.ctbites.com/home/2013/5/19/ten-best-restaurant-burgers-greenwich-to-new-haven-2013.html

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The Whelk (Westport) – Neptune’s Nirvana

I finally experienced a deep dive of the seafood at The Whelk in Westport and it was an extraordinary culinary experience, showcasing the James Beard Nominee Bill Taibe’s talents of intertwining various flavors and textures into a cohesive presentation that will challenge and please palates.

We started our journey with the Sunburst Farm Smoked Trout dip with roe skin potato dill bread. The smoked trout offered a large variety of textures and flavors and it disappeared too quickly. Be careful, the bread disappears first and you may need to ask for more. This was a great way to start the evening.

A selection of oysters hit the table next  and each presented a different flavor and texture but as one old time oyster fisherman once pointed out to me, when you eat an oyster you also need to focus on the level and differences in the salinity. You can almost tell their origin. And each of the oysters was so different in creaminess, flavor and salinity.

It is a little hard for me to believe that the first dish on my “extraordinary top-3” was the sweet and sour Brussel sprouts with white soy sauce, pumpkin seeds and rosemary. The flavors were over the top. The saltiness of the soy sauce complemented the sweet sprouts and the crispiness of the latter was perfect. Growing up I would never eat Brussel sprouts but this dish could make a convert of anyone.

The fried oyster on deviled eggs with onion pickles ain’t what you see at a Sunday social. The soft texture of the egg, the crunchy sweetness of the oyster and the onion pickles were fantastic. My only regret was that before I knew it the half-egg disappeared with two bites; I craved for more.

The warm Jonah crab claws with pepper relish, Benton’s ham and old bay was not on my “must have another” list. I admit that I am not a big crab claw fan and while others at the table raved about them they are just not my cup of tea. I just do not like the texture of crab claws, so it is my prejudice since others at the table loved them. For me I do need to point out that the Benton’s Ham is something that I had never tasted previously and I was an instant convert to this great addition.

As the table moved to the “crudo” portion of the meal the bar was raised even higher. There was slight disagreement as to which of the two earned the extraordinary status, I thought the cherry smoked cobia with warm cabbage and squash, barrel aged fish sauce, onions and butter was one of the best dishes ever. The first aspect that grabbed my attention was the texture of the cobia, with its firm, moist flesh, served in bite-sized cubes that accepted just a touch of the smokiness, and when the saltiness of the fish sauce kicked in and the other ingredients joined, the flavors brought an incredible smile to my face. The other dish, the crudo of “black bass with a blood oranges-lime Kosho sauce, fennel and sesame” was the clear choice of others at the table. At this point we were discussing “how high is up” with the level of deliciousness (not a bad place to be at dinner). The blood oranges offered a delicious sweet complement to the thinly-sliced fish and the Kosho brought just a touch of heat.

The last two dishes the table enjoyed were the Beer battered fluke fishsticks with celeriac, apple and kohlrabi slaw and creamy horseradish and the Squid ink cavatelli with red shrimp, Mexican chorizo and preserved tomato. The fishsticks were like none any of us have ever eaten. The crispy coating was delicious and the fluke was moist, flavorful and the texture was soft and delightful. The accompanying slaw was fantastic…it was difficult not eating more than two. Then I tried the pasta and the third slot in the trifecta now had a resident. The texture of the skid ink pasta was just delightful, and combined with the sauce would have made this dish fantastic, but Taibe added a few perfectly prepared shrimp to raise the bar even higher and finally hid a few thin slices of chorizo in the dish to grab your attention. One of the best pastas dishes anywhere.

For me all of the dishes were in an ultra-premium league but I need to call out the Trifecta Nirvana with the Brussel sprouts, the Cobia and the Squid Ink Pasta. These three dishes were extraordinary, all so different, all so perfectly composed and all so perfectly divine. But when you are eating at this level, it is all good, no let me rephrase, it is all great.

575 Riverside Avenue – Westport, CT 06880 –  203.557.0902

The Whelk on Urbanspoon