By Elizabeth Keyser
4:30 PM EDT, October 2, 2013
The chef's last name is familiar. Oak & Almond's executive chef Jeff Taibe is, indeed, the brother of Bill Taibe of The Whelk and Le Farm. Let's just get that out of the way. They are both chefs. They share an attractive, family resemblance (they have very blue eyes). They revel in ingredients. They both serve pigs tails. Jeff Taibe is the younger brother and when he talks about where he gets his ingredients and how he likes to cook them, there's a palpable enthusiasm.
I'm not going to compare the brothers' cooking. I'm going to tell you the way Jeff Taibe likes to cook. He likes to cook the kind of food he likes to eat. Simple. Rustic. Bold.
Oak & Almond opened in April, in the former Tuscan Oven in Norwalk. It's perched over Route 7, next to the Dept. of Motor Vehicles. It's a beautiful restaurant. The décor is simple, rustic and bold. An 18-foot communal table, repurposed from 100-year-old oak floorboards, dominates the main dining room. The walls are white, the wood tables are dark walnut, the windows are arched, the light fixtures are retro-industrial. When you enter Oak & Almond, you see the wood-burning oven and stove where the eponymous woods, oak and almond, fire up much of this earthy American cuisine.
In the remaining warm days of fall, the outdoor patio — or patios, multilevel, defined by handsome stone masonry walls — is appealing, especially near the outdoor fireplace. That is where we started when Taibe and owner Jon Paul Pirraglia recently invited writers and editors to Oak & Almond to see the place and taste the food.
We started with platters of appetizers. Burrata, the indulgently soft cheese of the moment, was simple, served on grilled bread baked in the wood-burning oven. A small bowl of exquisite, heirloom teardrop tomatoes, from Holbrook Farm in Bethel, were dressed only with salt, pepper and olive oil. We spooned the tomatoes on top of the burrata and reveled in the fresh flavors.
Fluke crudo, raw fluke from Rhode Island, was topped with puffed faro (wheat) and a serving-spoon smear of avocado sauce. We enjoyed the textures of the airy, crunchy puffed faro, the rich avocado and the clean flavor of the fish. Meatballs are the culinary opposite of crudo. Meatballs are grandma, homey and baked. Oak & Almond's meatballs were light in texture, full of flavor and served with a spicy roasted tomato sauce. Taibe said ricotta is one of the keys to the lightness.
Foie gras torchon topped with duck cracklings (nice texture contrast) isn't always on the menu, but if it is, I predict it will be descended upon by your dining companions. The Old Bay Pig Tails are usually on the menu, and they are just that — Old Bay, that Chesapeake Bay seasoning with its spicy, celery-saltiness, clings to the crisp skin.
We moved into the dining room, where locals with a relaxed affluent Wilton air and white-shirted men from the Merritt 7 corporate offices lingered over their meals.
Of the dishes that followed, lobster chittara was the standout. I've been no fan of Connecticut lobsters, but this, caught by Norm Bloom of South Norwalk, was the best Connecticut lobster I've ever had. The butter-poached lobster was plump and luscious, and a lemon zest brightness burst through the rich sauce. The chittara (pronounced KEY-tarra) pasta is made in-house, and cut by rolling the dough over a stringed cutting instrument from which it gets its guitar-like name.
Pirraglia is the host and resident wine expert. He features biodynamic and organic wines on the list.
At times, Taibe's exuberance runneth over. Roasted and pickled seasonal vegetables from local farms (Sport Hill, Farah's, Holbrook), cut in big slices, punched the palate with sugar and vinegar. Tea-smoked duck breast, brined and smoked, overwhelmed the palate. It lost its duck flavor, and became a soft-textured ham. Husk cherries, a tart fruit that's a member of the gooseberry family, provided a welcome contrast to the salinity of the duck dish. And Taibe's use of "middlins," broken rice grains from Anson Mills, to make mushroom risotto added an interesting texture to this creamy and al dente dish.
Desserts are not an afterthought at Oak & Almond. They're made in-house and are comforting: rum raisin bread pudding, chocolate chip cookies and house-made gelato. Panna cotta is all the rage these days, and Taibe makes an exceptional one. Buttermilk gives a lightness and acidity to the milk chocolate panna cotta. "I love buttermilk," Taibe says, "I love that tang." It wasn't very chocolaty, but it didn't matter. Caramelized bananas weren't just caramelized, they were brûléed, with a crispy browned sugar clinging to them. Chocolate tart was dense with chocolate, paired with chocolate gelato and finished with olive oil and sea salt.
Oak & Almond
544 Main. Ave., Norwalk, (203) 846-4600, oakandalmond.com
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