Category Archives: Restaurants

Photo Challenge #222

Last week’s Photo Challenge was a seahorse.

Okay, not a living one. This one’s a much larger sculpture.

For some reason, it’s located next to the Parker Mansion (former Mansion Clam House) outdoor dining area.

Diane Silfen, John D. McCarthy, Sue Iseman, Andrew Colabella, Christine Utter, Joelle Malec, Elizabeth Devoll, Peter Barlow, Susan Miller and Richard Santalesa all knew where to find it. (Click here for the photo.)

But no one has yet explained why it’s there. Or for how long. Or who created it. Or any other bit of back story.

If you know anything about this very cool seahorse, click “Comments” below.

Click “Comments” too if you know where in Westport you’d find this week’s Photo Challenge.

(Of course it’s the Rotary International symbol. But which particular local project does this honor? That’s the question!)

(Photo/Alec Head)

Ann’s Kitchen Really Delivers

Ann Campbell grew up in the Philippines. She wanted to be a doctor, but at her parents’ urging she studied accounting. After that came nursing school.

She married an American. They lived in Singapore for 10 years, then moved to Manhattan. With 3 kids their apartment grew cramped, so in 2008 they headed to Westport.

Now Ann’s story really gets interesting.

She was always intrigued by food. So in 2014 Ann put her degree from New York’s French Culinary Institute — sorry, I forgot to mention that, or that she’d worked at Oceana in the city! — to use.

Friends here told her how hard it was to make good food after a long day at work.

So she began cooking fresh, prepared meals for busy Westport families. With zest (and flavors).

Ann Campbell, at work.

On Thursday, Ann emails a menu. (To join the list, email annskitchenwestport@gmail.com). The ordering deadline is Sunday.

She includes whatever inspires her. She usually tries to add something new and special.

Armed with orders, Ann shops. She hits a variety of stores, from Whole Foods and specialty stores, to Asian markets in Westchester.

On Monday and Tuesday, Ann heads to the commercial kitchen at Harlan Publick in South Norwalk.

With the help of fellow Westport moms Nicole Von Dohlen and Sally Spencer,  Ann makes fresh seasonal salads, soups, main courses and other family-friendly dishes. She draws from an eclectic palate of world cuisines — Asian, European, fusion — always with the freshest ingredients.

Braised chicken with peppadew peppers.

The 3 women bring the fully-cooked meals to Ann’s house. On Tuesday at 3 p.m., customers pick them up. There’s free delivery for orders over $75.

Soups — especially Mom’s Chicken Dumpling, from Ann’s own stock (with homemade dumplings) — are quite popular.

So is her miso salmon with coconut black rice and vegetables. Also her potstickers. Kids love (of course) Ann’s mac and cheese.

Some families order every week; others, every other week, or once in a while. There’s no pressure (other than the hunger pangs you get reading the menu).

Ann’s Kitchen is a business. But it’s also a joy.

“I love to cook,” Ann says. “When people love my cooking, that makes me so happy.”

Almost as happy as Ann’s very satisfied — and well-fed — customers.

(PS: You may have eaten some of Ann’s great food without knowing it. She recently started filling Donut Crazy’s refrigerator, on the eastbound side of the train station. Hat tip: Jeff Manchester)

New Saugatuck Story Lab Is The “Write” Place

For nearly 10 years, a suite of offices sat empty on the top floor of 21 Charles Street — the building opposite Tarry Lodge. That’s odd. It’s just a few steps from the train station, there are great restaurants all around, and the view is spectacular.

But the space is now rented. There’s a story there. In fact, there are countless stories.

The new tenant is Fairfield County Story Lab. It’s the brainchild of Carol Dannhauser, a journalist and writing teacher who loves both the written word, and the people who write it.

Carol Dannhauser enjoys working on one of Story Lab’s inviting couches.  

After 30 years with (among others) the New Haven Register and New York Daily News — and a freelance career in books, magazines and documentaries — Dannhauser realized that although writing is a solitary act, writers need solidarity.

She had a nice home office. Yet she’d head to Panera or Starbucks to work. She liked the background buzz. But even with a cup of coffee, she could not sit there forever.

“I was looking for ‘my people,'” Dannhauser says. “There are great writing studios in Westport” — in fact, she’s co-founder of the Fairfield County Writers Studio, elsewhere in the Charles Street building — “but they’re all about teaching,  not actually writing. I wanted a place where people could write, connect and prosper.”

She knows this town is filled with real writers: novelists, playwrights, journalists, children’s book authors, poets — you name it. She figured, “If you build it, they will come.”

She did. And they did.

Working in one of the common areas …

Dannhauser, her husband, and her business partner Diane Salerno spent 5 months renovating the 2,5oo-square foot space. They worked from Dannhauser’s vision: Give writers every type of accommodation they could imagine.

And even some they couldn’t.

There are all kinds of configurations: rooms with desks. Sofas. A quiet room (NO TALKING ALLOWED!). A deadline room (for an extra $100 a week you can lock the door, and race to finish that book or TV project.)

The cafe/kitchen — a corner room with great lighting and a killer view — is stocked with cheese, cookies, coffee, tea and a microwave.

A community room is perfect for a book club meeting, or book launch party.

… and the community room.

There’s also an interview room, a phone room and storyboard room, where groups of creatives can plot ideas. Of course, free WiFi is everywhere.

An attorney offers pro bono advice once a month on issues like copyrights and royalties.

A grand opening recently drew 100 people, including best-selling authors and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe. Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce president Matthew Mandell was there too. He’s excited that Story Lab will draw folks to Saugatuck. And — because you can’t sit and write forever — they’ll get up, go outside, and patronize nearby shops and restaurants.

As well as Mystic Market. The new store in the old Blu Parrot/Arrow had opened just a few days earlier. The market welcomed their new neighbor with a huge plate of cookies.

It’s open from 4 a.m. to 1 a.m. Hey, even writers need to sleep.

(Story Lab memberships range from a day rate to every day for a year, with several options in between. For more information, click here.)

The quiet room is QUIET!

Restaurant Health Inspections: The Sequel

This morning’s “06880” story about Julian’s — the Post Road restaurant that received its first-ever failing grade from a state Health Department trainee, then lost customers when the score was disclosed to the media (despite passing with a high score on its re-inspection) — generated plenty of reaction.

Readers wrote, relieved that one of their favorite restaurants was not suddenly gross. Others commented on their own experiences working in restaurants.

A Westport owner sent me a detailed reply. He asked not to be identified, but said he spoke for many colleagues. He wrote:

This is so interesting. I thought I was going crazy.

An inspector who was just hired by the town paid us 3 visits in 2 weeks. A little excessive, I thought.

No hands — but gloves required?

She deducted points for a broken tile in the customer seating area. How is that a health violation? Until then, I thought the craziest thing I had heard before from a health inspector was to use gloves to make an espresso (there’s no hand and food contact when making an espresso).

I have said for years that all health inspectors should, by law, have worked in restaurant kitchens for at least 6 months, so they understand the pressures. Some of the regulations make no sense, and they can’t explain them.

Just last week we were told we could not cook whole turkeys, porchetta and roast beef because our kitchen is not “equipped” for that. She told us to buy pre-cooked crap meat. Mind you, we have a type 4 license, which allows us to cook whatever we want.

When taking over our space we added more modern ovens and a lot of refrigeration in order to get that type 4 license. When we asked the inspector why we couldn’t cook the meats, and how to comply with regulation — meats that made us known among our customers — she didn’t know how or why.

The other thing that bothers me is that the health department has been unwilling to explain things through the phone or email, so we can quickly fix or adapt. They are requiring these long, in-person meetings.

Even with all of this going on, our lowest grade was 85.

Fortunately, I recently had a lengthy and productive conversation with Jeff Andrews, the health district’s chief sanitarian. We were able to find solutions for the “problems” they encountered.

I’m relieved to know that this was not a targeted attack on us. Please let Mike Sayyed of Julian’s know that we thank him for speaking out. This business is tough. Most of us operators are honest, and want to make sure all health regulations are met in our places. Crazy inspectors make our life very hard.

Health Inspector Gives Low Grades — And Gets Them

Mike Sayyed spent 11 years building his business.

Julian’s Brick Oven Pizza thrived — first in Saugatuck, then on Post Road East near Maple Avenue. There’s a Julian’s in Monroe too.

His restaurants are clean. His food is very good.

Then — in November — a young health inspector came. She spent nearly 3 hours in his Westport kitchen.

She took a point off here for a cup in the wrong place, a point off there for another petty infraction. She kept finding obscure violations. It all added up to a failing grade of 64.

Julian’s had never failed before. Their grades had always been 89, 91 — high.

(Photo/Seth Schachter)

“She was just born when I got into the business,” says Sayyed, who is proud of his cleanliness and adherence to health codes. “I started in this business as a line cook. I run everything today. I serve good food, and make people happy. My customers are doctors, lawyers, professionals.

“I’m educated about inspections. I care about them. I’m not a franchisee who hires teenagers who cough on gloves.”

He asked the inspector how to improve. “She didn’t know. It was unbelievable,” he says.

Sayyed got a 95 on his re-inspection. But that came after his score was released to the media, and reported in the news. The stories were quickly passed around on social media.

Julian’s was not alone. Several other Westport restaurants received their first-ever failing grades.

All suffered heavily from losses of business.

“It sounded like I’m poisoning customers. Now the families, the regulars — they’re not coming in,” Sayyed says.

I called Jeffrey Andrews, chief sanitarian for the Westport Weston Health District.

He explained that the young inspector who failed Julian’s and several other restaurants had been undergoing training for the state Department of Health.

“When the state is involved, and the inspectors are being graded themselves, they can downgrade a restaurant for every little thing,” he acknowledged.

That’s why, he says, she took “much longer” than usual, and was “much more involved.”

Andrews notes that every restaurant with a failing grade was re-evaluated. All received much higher — and well above passing — scores.

But by then the damage to Julian’s — and several other popular Westport dining spots — had already been done.

Jeera Thai: Thanking A Gem

The other day, I stopped in to Jeera Thai.

That’s the tiny but wonderful restaurant tucked next to Finalmente, across from Design Within Reach, just down from Westport Pizzeria and the great new Field Trip jerky shop.

In a town filled with very good restaurants — and new ones coming (and going) all the time — Jeera Thai is at the top of any list.

This is the real deal. The menu is authentic — not watered down for American palates. Chicken, lamb, noodles, soups, stir-fry, curry — it’s all there, flavorful, zesty and real.

Herbs and spices are “correct” — imported from Thailand. Other ingredients come from New York, where there is a robust Thai dining scene.

Clockwise from top: Su Kho Thai, a very spicy noodle soup; curry puffs (chicken with cucumber sauce); Bangkok Stir Fry, another spicy and wonderful dish.

I had a salmon, red curry and coconut dish that was truly out of this world. Or at least, halfway around it.

Here’s the interesting thing: As I chatted with owner Jeeranunn Atiportunyapong — you can call her “Luna,” and I sure do — several other diners offered totally unsolicited praise.

“I’m very well traveled,” one said. “I study Asian culture. This is as spot-on as it gets. The food is so fresh. It’s real cooking. You can’t fake flavors. There’s a perfect balance between pungent and spicy. It can be ecstatically amazing.”

But she wasn’t finished. She added, “This place is a refuge for me. I come here 3 or 4 days a week.”

Luna, in her Jeera Thai restaurant.

Overhearing us talking, another customer chimed in.

“I’ve been to Thailand. This is so authentic. The pad kaprow and drunken noodles with beef — you can’t beat that anywhere. You should write a story about it!”

I don’t usually do that. But those customers — and all of Luna’s many others — are right. It’s a true Westport gem, hidden right in the middle of downtown.

So here’s that story. And (thank you, Google Translate!) here are my thanks to Luna, for Jeera Thai’s wonderful food and beautiful spirit:

ขอขอบคุณและขอให้โชคดี

Jeera Thai, nestled in a small space off the Post Road.

Friday Flashback #132

Last week, I posted a story about the day Marian Anderson visited Bedford Elementary School. Buried in the piece was a quick line noting that the building now serves as Town Hall.

Sure, our Myrtle Avenue seat of government looks like a school. But although generations of graduates think about their alma mater every time they drive by or see a reference to it on “06880,” I wonder how many Westporters who moved here since the 1979 conversion realize its history.

Bedfprd Elementary School (Photo courtesy of Paul Ehrismann)

In 1917, the town voted to build a new school to serve children from “East and West Saugatuck, Cross Highway, Poplar Plains and Coleytown.” Major funding came from noted philanthropist (and Beachside Avenue resident) Edward T. Bedford.

Eight years later he helped fund Greens Farms Elementary School, much closer to his estate.

So if Town Hall is now at the old Bedford El, where was it originally?

The Post Road. For decades, our town operated out of the handsome stone building next to what is today Restoration Hardware.

The old Town Hall has been repurposed. Westporters know it now for 2 great restaurants: Jesup Hall, and Rothbard Ale + Larder.

There’s not much to remind you that it was once the center of government. Although the next time you’re in Rothbard, take a close look around.

The basement once served as the police lockup.

Pic Of The Day #688

Dinner at OKO (Photo/Dan Woog)

Unsung Heroes: Special Edition

After digging themselves out — and getting power back on — “06880” readers were eager to offer up a few Unsung Heroes. Usually we wait until Wednesday, but it’s nice to strike while the iron (if not the weather) is hot.

Gil Ghitelman — who must have gotten his power back quickly — writes: “I suggest a hat tip to Eversource. Consummate professionals.”

Chip Stephens nominates the baristas at Starbucks. Despite the snow, they were there bright and early with his morning Joe.

But the greatest Unsung Hero — so far, anyway — works at a different coffee shop. JP Vellotti tells this tale:

“Like a lot of people this snowy morning, I was shoveling since 5 a.m. Like a lot of people, I needed my coffee before the train.

“The new Mystic Market was closed. Winfield Street just closed too, and Desi’s is out.

“But Romanacci — which is just taking over from Winfield — had a makeshift counter, and one pot going. The line was long, but it went fast.”

Here’s the best part: The credit card machine isn’t set up yet. So Venlich Aguilar — who is staying on after Winfield Street leaves — asked people to pay cash, if they could. Round numbers, please — too many people, so no change.

And if you had no cash — no problem. Just come back later and pay!

Burger Kings

Sure, tomorrow is the first day of March. We will turn an important corner on our long, dark, snowless winter.

But tomorrow is special for another reason: It’s the first day of the Great Westport Burger Contest.

The perhaps-not-long-awaited-but-certainly-hungered-for event follows last year’s equally tasty (and also Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce-sponsored) Pizza Contest. (There were 8 categories — just like the 8 slices in a pie. Click here for the winners.)

All month long, 18 burger-making restaurants will compete in 7 categories:

  • Best Classic Burger
  • Best Cheeseburger
  • Best Gourmet Burger
  • Best Veggie Burger
  • Best Non-Beef Burger (fish, turkey, lamb…)
  • Best Fast Food Burger
  • Best Slider

Each restaurant can enter up to 4 categories. But — in a nod to today’s no-one-really-loses culture — no restaurant can win more than twice.

The restaurants are Amis, Black Duck, Border Grille, Dunville’s, Harvest, Jesup Hall, Jr’s, Little Barn, Match Burger, McDonald’s, Parker Mansion, Rothbard Ale + Larder, Rye Ridge Deli, Shake Shack, Spotted Horse, Tarry Lodge, Tavern on Main and Viva Zapata.

(If you wonder why Five Guys is not on that list: So do I.)

Residents have through March 31 to visit the venues, enjoy the offerings, then go to the Chamber’s Burger Contest page to vote via cellphone or online.

Feel free to post photos online, using the hashtag #greatwestportburger.

Winners will be announced April 1. No fooling.

Fun fact: Tomorrow at noon, 1st Selectman Jim Marpe proclaims March “Westport Burger Month.” The lunch-hour ceremony takes place at Tavern on Main. When I think “burgers,” I don’t automatically think of that restaurant. But — as Pope Francis famously said — “Who am I to judge?”