The two delicious dishes I tried at The Whelk in Westport
It was a perfect summery Friday in Westport when I went to The Whelk. The previously humid weather from earlier in the week had subsided, paddle boarders were floating along on the Saugatuck, and a gentle breeze slipped in and out on the boat-lined dock. Sounds just picturesque, doesn’t it? It was the absolute perfect day for seafood (which we all know I enjoy) from what was conveniently voted the Best Seafood restaurant in Westport. What could be better?
For those of you who have never been to The Whelk...well, you should go. The menu is eclectic, yet, somehow familiar at the same time. Please readers, if you will, lend me your ears (or your eyes, I suppose, unless you happen to be reading this aloud) as I may expound upon this theory. For instance, we have probably all had meatballs once or twice in our lifetime. But have you ever tasted lamb meatballs with almond-cocoa picada, a cabbage salad and Parmesan cheese, as they are served at The Whelk? Or how about the southern classic, shrimp and grits? A dish normally prepared with just its namesake staple ingredients, The Whelk gives their rendition of the dish a twist with southern ham, ramp pickles and lobster butter. You see? The Whelk is able to serve recognizable food with an added and unexpected (and often complex) element, which takes your taste buds on a surprising and satisfying epicurean journey.
For my appetizer I started with the octopus, which was served with potatoes, parsley, olives, chickpeas and harissa. As a brief sidebar, if you are unfamiliar with harissa, it is a hot chili pepper paste that is often used in Northern African cooking. It has a wonderful chili flavor without being excessively spicy and, prior to dining at The Whelk, never thought of it as an ingredient to use with octopus. The octopus was perfectly tender, and the harissa added the perfect subtle element of chili/peppery flavor without fighting the octopus’ traditional sea-like flavor. The olives in the dish added a wonderful briny and salty component, and the chick peas were a great addition for texture and flavor. The octopus was served atop a salad of a purslane, which is a fresh and earthy tasting green. If you haven’t heard of it, don’t be alarmed. Apparently purslane is considered to be a weed in the United States (not sure why, actually) and is much more widely used in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. See, that’s what I mean about The Whelk. You order octopus over greens, and you get it, but you are also getting something completely unique, new and innovative.
The black chick peas. Yes, they're really chick peas!
The end result
For my entrée I decided to order the catfish, which is something I know quite well. Quick background story! I was born in Houston and essentially my entire family lives in Arkansas (go, hogs, go) or Texas. So, given this, I know a thing or two about catfish. Catfish is most often served with a crust of cornmeal and deep fried until it has a beautiful golden crust, but is still moist, succulent and juicy on the inside. Some of the more traditional accompaniments are coleslaw, perhaps French fries or potato salad, maybe some skillet cornbread, or just a simple salad. And you can’t forget the hot sauce, of course! Well, this catfish is one of the most memorable that I have tasted. Indeed, the catfish at The Whelk had the familiar, perfectly golden brown crust and moist inside that I am accustomed to, but the accompaniments were what made the dish notable. Instead of coleslaw, this catfish was served with a fresh salad of sugar snap peas and pistachios, which mirrored the coolness and crunch that would have normally come from coleslaw. The catfish was also lightly drizzled with crème fraiche, which added another cooling element to the dish. Again, a combination that I would not have normally thought of, but it was one that worked very well and tasted fantastic.
The moral of the story is that you will not be disappointed with your meal at The Whelk, and will likely find the combination of ingredients and elements on your plate uniquely satisfying.
575 Riverside Ave, Westport; (203) 557-0902