Restaurants come in all shapes and sizes these days. Drive around town and you’ll find storefront ethnic and luxurious upscale, trendy casual and themed menu, raucous energy and quiet sanctuary, traditional style and hip panache. There’s something for everyone.
Sugar and Olives at 21 Lois Street is one of the most unique dining spots I’ve visited lately. The unassuming commercial building off of Westport Ave. has been carved into an industrial-chic cooking, eating, lounging, and event space – one flowing into another. Even the name causes a double-take.
Just inside the door there’s a farmhouse table displaying take-away foods, products from S&O suppliers, and some of the owner’s favorite cookbooks – all for sale. Beyond that you can see cooks working on prep and a large event space standing by for your next occasion. Turn right past the small bar, and you’ll find the dining room with stylish metal chairs, wooden benches, and long communal tables on polished concrete floors. Just beyond is the open kitchen staffed by cooks standing at the stove. I can’t resist watching as they prepare our dinners.
Chef/owner Jennifer Balin is everywhere at once – consulting with the cooks, greeting guests, moving from table to table – her apron bearing the splashes and splotches of a working cook. With a charming personality, she’s eager to talk about her food sources, organic ingredients, local farmers, and favorite recipes.
Balin, a big supporter of local suppliers, particularly the vendors at the year-round Westport Farmer’s Market, changes the menu with the seasons and available supplies. Our dinner started with Smoked Bluefish Paté
(FranksFeast.com for a recipe), a New England favorite stylishly served on rosemary flatbread. Her smoked bluefish is supplied by the Local Catch, fisherman-marketers who sell at the Westport Winter Market. Next, we dug into a chopped kale salad tossed with an intriguing and mysterious miso-maple dressing, dusted with grated cheese, and heaped into a mountain on the plate. Trying to keep our consumption in bounds, we shared a rainbow trout from Rowledge Farm in Newtown, roasted, boned and served over Balin’s quinoa paella, a vegan mix of carrots, leeks, fennel, potatoes, and turmeric simmered up with the quinoa. We tried to skip dessert, but (at Jennifer’s insistence) we tried a delicious and nourishing sticky toffee pudding (look it up to see the surprising and delicious main ingredient) – warm, irresistible, and well worth the extra calories.
An excess of tempting dishes on a menu is a sign of a creative kitchen. The bounty at S&O makes it hard to choose but exciting to contemplate. There were lots of things I wanted to try but didn’t (even I have my limits). Chocolate Bread Toasts (“These are good” is their menu description) can be had three ways: with bacon, jam and a sunny egg; with pimento goat cheese and pistachio dust; or with tapenade, chevre, and agave. The Jam Burger is dressed with bacon jam, white cheddar, tomato confit and more. A Lamb Burger with Maytag blue cheese, caramelized shallots, and spicy house catsup is a new take on an old favorite. Looks like I’ll have to go back a couple more times.
There’s a list of thirty-two well-chosen wines (almost all by the glass and bottle) including the largest selection of Finger Lakes Riesling I’ve ever seen (only three, but still lots for this region). The list of whites, in particular, includes of-the-beaten-path wines like Dry Muscat, Grüner
Veltliner, Jacquère, Muscadet, Pinot Bianco, Vermentino and a white Savoie.
Brunch is popular at S&O. I haven’t been, but the staff all encouraged me to come, and the online chatter is all positive. Eggs, pancakes, crèpes, a vegan curry bowl, and more are all on the menu in creative presentations.
Jennifer gives classes in her commercial kitchen on topics like vinaigrettes, desserts, and party giving. The details are on the website, sugarandolives.com.
At its winter quarters in the greenhouse at Gilbertie’s Herb Gardens at 7 Sylvan Lane, The Westport Farmer’s Market is going strong. No, there’s no garden lettuce, vine-ripened tomatoes, or local fruit; but there are lots of prepared foods, local crafts, specialty products, and plenty of inspiration for the menu at S&O.
In addition to the Local Catch, there’s cheese from Beltane and Beaver Brook Farms; artisanal teas and coffees from Arogya and Raus; fresh-baked bread from Wave Hill; pies, tarts and bars from Huckleberry Artisan pastries. For the pooch or kitty in your life, pick up some organic pet food. Don’t feel like cooking? Get some delicious prepared foods from Simply Delicious, Flour City Pasta, or a Mexican feast from Boxcar Cantina.
The market offerings change weekly. Walk around, talk to the vendors, do a little sampling, and you’ll come out with a bag of fresh flavors and new cooking ideas. There’s usually a demonstration from one of the vendors or a special guest. Keep up-to-date, and sign up for their newsletter at westportfarmersmarket.com.
At Sugar and Olives the motto is, “Wholesome, local, and organic ingredients sourced from farms across Connecticut.” Find it at the restaurant or at the Westport Winter Farmer’s Market. Don’t give up on market eating just because it’s January. It may be a little challenging but can lead to more original, interesting and delicious results!