Jan 17, 2011

What It Means to be Effortlessly Chic

Restaurant: Westport Cafe & Bar 
Food: French Bistro-inspired
Service: Traditional waitstaff. Attentive, never cheesy.
Atmosphere: Laid back, European, cosmopolitan.
Price: Cocktails around $8, apps $4-$11, sandwiches & salads $6-$12, entrees under $20 
Rating: Three napkins

Effortlessly chic. When used to characterize a restaurant, it’s a descriptor that makes no sense unless one has experienced it firsthand. And that’s how I’d describe Westport Café & Bar, one of the newest establishments in Westport and quite possibly its very best.

The lighting is utilitarian-chic. The white
subway tiles on the walls are clean & classy.
Discussing my upcoming trip to the new-ish restaurant with friends, none of whom had been yet either, there seemed to be a theme: that they’d heard it was good and were interested to try it, but hadn’t pulled the trigger because they’d looked at the menu and nothing really jumped out at them. There was nothing extravagant. Nothing unique. No big hook. I bet if you asked owner Aaron Confessori, he’d tell you that’s the whole idea.

In fact, the home page of the website reads as follows: “Westport Cafe & Bar is a casual Paris-style Bistro that offers an American menu with classic French inspiration and preparations. Simple, quality ingredients are braised, grilled, poached, confit, or cured in the same old-world techniques that have been practiced by the French masters for years.”

You see, it’s really not about originality. Westport Café & Bar pays homage to the time-honored French dishes and techniques that have earned French cookery its reputation as the most influential in the culinary world, but with just enough of a twist to still achieve a discernable individualism.

And then there's this over-the-top beautiful framed
mirror toward the back that adds an ornate old world flare.
Part of the tradition of Parisian bistros and brasseries is good alcohol and Westport Café & Bar serves up, truly, some of the finest in the city (local mixologists Ryan Maybee and Beau Williams of Manifesto crafted the menu). Last night after taking our seats in the long hallway between the front and back dining areas just outside the door to the kitchen, I ordered up the Winter Smash and Elizabeth the Granny’s Westside.

Cocktails here are a must.
The Winter Smash was a tart, seasonally inspired mixture of Bourbon, fresh lemon juice, spiced honey syrup and peach, garnished with a skewer of three red berries and delicately walking a line between sour and sweet. Burying my snout in that lowball glass was a treat I was sad had to end.

Elizabeth’s Granny’s Westside looked the part of an old school cocktail in its small juice glass with egg white foam on top. Other ingredients in the lip-smacking libation were a homemade baked apple infused vodka, lemon, lime, simple syrup and soda. She didn’t want to share hers and I was confident I was winning out by not having to share mine.

Check out my mussels.
The gal who cuts my hair – a bit of a foodie herself and a great restaurant-talk cohort of mine – had been to WC&B and said the mussels were a must. Between choices with bacon and blue cheese or shaved fennel and roasted tomato, we went with the latter. It had been quite some time since we’d had mussels, so it wouldn’t have taken much for them to earn our adoration, but I absolutely did love them.

The mussels were plump and sweet with hints of garlic but not an overpowering amount. The tomatoes, though a little sparse, were soft and savory. And that broth, the best part of a steaming bowl of mussels, was a heavenly bath for the slices of baguette studding the bowl. My only gripe was that the fennel was not shaved, but rather came in long, undercooked strips. They lacked finesse and actually seemed more like long strips of Vidalia onion than fennel at all. Not bad, but not what we’d hoped for. Still, I’d order another bowl of those mussels with the exact same preparation in a heartbeat.

Seared tuna sandwich with ginger aioli.
One can go as pricey or cheap as they wish on this dinner menu. The salads and sandwiches are quite reasonable—Chicken Paillard for just $11, Tuna Nicoise for $12, Croque Monsieur for $9, Madame and her fried egg for just another dollar.

We didn’t go there on this trip, but the dinner entrees include plenty of seafood: fish of the day, arctic char, cod or scallops. There’s also pasta, roasted chicken, steak frites and pork shoulder. All range from $13 to $19.00.

Our first choice was the seared tuna sandwich. On a soft, sweet roll, rare strips of gorgeous pink tuna were heaped with a thick bedding of tender baby spinach and a brightly contrasting, sweet ginger aioli, which I loved. On the side was a small pile of sweated shallot, which I added to the sandwich, not knowing if they were just an optional topping or meant to go with my side salad. Each pleasurable mouthful melted away effortlessly. I instantly devoured the entire thing, which was not huge but certainly an adequate size.

The salad on the side, with shaved Parmesan and radishes, was lightly dressed with a heavenly, unctuous vinaigrette containing luxurious truffle oil. It didn’t overpower but was, rather, the perfect amount to make the salad a true bonus as opposed to a compulsory side.

Steak sandwich.
The steak sandwich came on another soft roll (though not the same one as came with the tuna sandwich) again with strips of delightfully tender meat and with a beautiful complimentary slathering of horseradish cream and sautéed onion; quite similar to the tuna sandwich in preparation, but an entirely different world of flavors. My fear with steak sandwiches is always overcooked stretchy, chewy meat. Not so here, as the steak melted away almost as easily as did the rare fish. I’m salivating now, as I relive the memories of each of these sandwiches.

As we conquered the French-inspired sandwiches, we also crammed salty pommes frites, buttery sautéed mushrooms and garlicky wilted spinach down our respective hatches. It was all so satisfying… so delicious… so… French. The attractive clientele sitting around us all seemed so laid back and satisfied, too. Our old neighbors Steve and Janie stopped by to chat. Steve’s a trained chef who knows his restaurants. I took his patronage as a sign we were on to something good.

Food finally gone, I polished off my backup drink – a glass of Tank 7 – and then glanced over at Elizabeth with an “I don’t want to leave yet” expression. She read me perfectly and “insisted” that we stick around for a cup of coffee (French Press, of course). I grinned and reclined. And as I sat back, sipping the warm coffee, I thoroughly felt and enjoyed the relaxed, collected French vibe emoting from every detail of the place. No one rushing, yet with superb service. Tasteful yet somewhat sparse décor. So much attention to detail yet not enough detail to be fussy.

I doubt I’m describing this all well enough to accurately convey the experience of dining at Westport Café & Bar, so here I’ll just circle back to my original point: I can call it effortlessly chic, but you simply have to experience it to understand.

Rating: three napkins

Westport Cafe & Bar on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

Chris Jones said...

Sounds like a winner. I just had lunch, but reading made me hungry again.

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