Dialing up the Flavor Volume on Casual Comfort
Westport doesn’t need help with branding. Beautiful, affluent, and perched on Long Island Sound, it has long been a sophisticated haven for artists, musicians, writers, and other successful New Yorkers with ex-urban soul who come for the good schools, shopping, vibrant arts scene, and terrific dining. So making a suggestion to rebrand Westport as Little Paris on the Saugatuck might prompt the cognoscenti to ask which organic arugula truck you rode in on.
Summoning the cosmopolitan comparison isn’t ridiculous in the context of Chef Bill Taibe’s latest Westport venture, Jesup Hall, located on the main floor of the former town hall on Main Street, across from one edge of the new Bedford Square multi-use development.
Taibe is the visionary chef and four-time James Beard Foundation “Best Chef: Northeast” semifinalist who wowed Westport with a tiny spot up the street called LeFarm (now The Cottage under Chef Brian Lewis), and he loves the chef-centric, aggressive, modern bistros in Paris that make insiders’ lists of best places to dine.
Jesup Hall is the latest example of his mastery of creating new places that feature terrific food while also feeling magnetically evocative of a particular culinary slice of life—in this case, Parisian casual elegance defined by a European flair for effortlessly and deliciously being all things to all guests within a single large, open dining floor with distinctive spaces.
Taibe enjoyed a string of restaurant successes (including Wildfire in Greenwich and G/R/A/N/D in Stamford) before striking new culinary gold in 2009 with LeFarm in Westport. The instant-hit ethos was simple; LeFarm built an irresistible identity on Taibe’s constantly changing menu that worshipped the season’s freshest produce, fish, and meat.
“It kind of changed what food was in this area,” Taibe says of LeFarm, his third restaurant in Westport sourcing everything possible from local farms and distributors. “LeFarm was the first chef-driven restaurant that was about what we’re cooking every day. It wasn’t a seasonal menu; it was a daily menu. The music was loud, and the food was salty and fatty and aggressive. It was all the things you aren’t supposed to eat. It created a style.”
That wasn’t supposed to be the style of Jesup Hall, however. It was envisioned as a contemporary tavern serving craft beer and meat-and-potatoes dishes, “like better wedding food,” Taibe says. Even after the restaurant opened in early March, Taibe and his Jesup Hall chef, Dan Sabia, were thinking, “classic tavern.” But at the same time, Sabia was still saying, “What’s our dish? I don’t know. What’s our menu?”
“Neither one of us was thrilled,” Taibe recalls, which led to the “light-bulb” moment: marry traditional, approachable New England fare with an ever-changing array of unique culinary explorations, resulting in a diverse and delicious dining experience. The recalibrated menu had the place fully booked on a Saturday night in the spring, with guests so happy and dazzled they were leaning into each other’s spaces to stare at and exclaim over dishes not ordered.
Guests on one side of our table were savoring an appetizer of popovers with coffee butter and southern ham, while a woman on the other side was raving about the potted whipped chicken livers with bacon, onion, and maple marmalade.
When those tables turned over, the masterful versatility of Jesup Hall became more apparent. The next couple dug into burgers and craft beers, while a younger couple with a toddler at the larger table sampled a series of appetizers. Even though the food is some of the finest to be found on the Gold Coast, families with children of all ages feel comfortable taking advantage of Jesup Hall’s buttoned-down version of dining sophistication.
Which brings things back around to the Little Paris on the Saugatuck notion. Taibe and Sabia have created the cosmopolitan bistro of the moment on the European model, a place that shapes amazing flavors around whatever type of experience guests desire.
Sit at the bar and get messy with a Diva burger (two patties cooked pink with Arethusa Farm Diva cheese, horseradish, sauerkraut, and onion aioli on a brioche bun), or enjoy the company at one of the communal tables while feasting on pan-roasted beef shell steak (blue cheese butter, red beets, and bitter lettuce) or classic, hedonistic, slow-cooked beef prime rib (bone marrow beef jus, onions, and potatoes).
Tuck into a small table by the big windows for Aroyga teas or Shearwater coffee, cappuccino, or espresso with desserts like the PB cup with caramel, chocolate cookies, and peanut brittle, or Aleppo lemon curd with graham cracker crust and burnt onion meringue. Gather around one of the large tables in the corner with friends for a three-course dinner that starts with dishes like Stonington scallop crudo with grapefruit dashi ad shio kombu or roasted mushroom tartine with burnt almond butter, chicken jus, and lemon.
Wherever you sit at Jesup Hall, you have to eat the greens and vegetables—in one way, that’s what it’s all about. A member of the board of the Westport Farmers Market, Taibe is one of Connecticut’s leading prophets for creating with locally grown and sourced products.
The award-winning cheeses of Arethusa Farm in Litchfield turn up in dishes all over the menu, and the ground beef and burgers come from Fleishers Craft Butchery in Westport. Millstone Farm in Wilton, Sport Hill Farm in Easton, Fort Hill Farm in New Milford, and Dancing Dog Farm in Ridgefield are among the favorite suppliers for Taibe and Sabia.
Ultimately, even Taibe has a difficult time describing the magic he and Sabia have created at Jesup Hall. “It’s just a way of cooking. It’s a chef-driven way of cooking.” Sabia calls it “the simplest and most unpretentious food we could put up that blows people’s minds. The second you bite into it, you’ll know where we’re coming from.”
To truly understand, you’ll have to stop by, dig in, and come up with your own description.
Jesup Hall is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, beginning at 5pm, and lunch Wednesday through Saturday, from noon to 2:30pm. The arrival of warm weather also launched dining on the patio in front of Jesup Hall, overlooking Main Street.
Jesup Hall 90 Post Rd. East, Westport, Connecticut 203-557-6198