The end of the Route 7 connector, next door to the Department of Motor Vehicles office, and looking a lot like an oversized drive-in from the '70s doesn't seem like a primo location for a primo restaurant.
But get over that because Oak+Almond is a fine dining destination.
The lineage alone here is impressive enough. The Taibe family has brought us some of the most innovative and exciting cuisine in years, with Bill's genius at both Le Farm and The Whelk in Westport. Now, little brother Jeff is making his mark in a big way in a beautifully designed new restaurant.
The large space is made manageable with several smaller and well-defined rooms, including a very cozy "living room" centered around a fireplace, a hugely fun bar in the old style of camaraderie and an expansive outdoor seating patio with heat lamps and a roaring firepot.
But the main event is in the large dining room, where the open kitchen, giant rotisserie and oak-and-almond wood-fired oven are center stage.
Wood and metal play the starring roles in the restaurant's understated-yet-sophisticated ambiance. Rubbed walnut forms the tabletops and industrial lighting, along with heaps of candles, bring warmth to the large dining space.
Upholstered chairs and well-spaced seating encourage nicely paced, contented meals. Service is as professional as the menu, the kitchen and the setting, with attention to details and a nicely paced dining experience. The wine list is extensive and moderately priced, with recommendations from the chef, if requested.
Like many new restaurants this year, a focus here is on appetizers and small plates, and whole meals can be made with a few of these to share. But unlike many other menus these days, chef Taibe gives much attention to a solid list of enticing main courses.
Starters from the kitchen are all winners, from the simplicity of warm olives spiked with preserved lemon to probably the most fabulous salad I've seen and tasted all year.
The farm-to-table concept here is not just lip service. The roasted and pickled Connecticut farm vegetables, which presumably changes as the harvest season rolls on, consisted for us of a brilliant array of red, orange, yellow and purple pickled beets and roasted and caramelized baby carrots and squash, along with a little avocado and arugula in a sublime toasted sesame vinaigrette.
Taibe adds his signature talent to many classic salads, with a Caesar salad of kale, farmhouse egg and house-smoked bacon. (There is a smoker outside in the parking lot.)
Other appetizers, notably a heap of sweet mussels, are personalized with the addition of harissa sauce and fennel to the garlic-and-herb-butter wine broth ready to be sopped up by the crusty and chewy house-baked bread.
This same bread also forms the base for an intriguing crostini of red bee honeycomb, toasted almonds, or a burrata with heirloom tomatoes and garden basil.
Wood-fired chicken wings are smoky and spicy with a sriracha honey glaze, and pork and ricotta meatballs are at once light and hearty in a peppery homemade tomato sauce.
The oak-and-almond wood-fired oven puts out several flatbreads, lightly charred and puffy to be a whole meal or shared with salads. Toppings range from rich pork belly and clams with garlic oil and smoked mozzarella, a blend of local wild mushrooms with fontina and aged balsamic, or crumbled sausage with tomatoes and a hint of Calabrian chilis.
Main courses show the chef's range and talents. Lobster chittara is a standout among the pastas, with generous chunks of tender lobster in a blistered tomato-and-pepper broth tossed with al dente homemade pasta.
Other seasonably changing options might be braised rabbit with lemon and mushrooms and whole wheat tagliatelle, or a classic rendition of buccatini alla amatriciana with local bacon.
Grilled trout atop smoky potato slices is gently upgraded with grainy mustard, and roasted chicken is similarly subtle with fingerling potatoes and garlicky sauteed greens.
Our table favorite is the sweet and smoky charred pork chop on a bed of cheese grits and bacon-flecked collards with a grinding of smoked salt. We didn't even need to try the hamburger in order to recommend it -- the Taibe family is famous for its amazingly juicy burgers from grass-fed beef along with house-smoked bacon, cipollini jam, gorgonzola and a side of fabulous fries.
Other main courses include salmon with lentils and arugula with ginger pickles and porcini-rubbed rib eye steak.
With all of these flavors dancing in our heads, we hardly needed dessert, but the menu is very enticing. The two we sampled, however, need a bit of work to rise to the standards of the rest of the meal.
Rum raisin bread pudding had few raisins, barely a hint of rum and came with a bland coconut gelato and a dollop of whipped cream. Milk chocolate panna cotta had little chocolate taste, but was prettily served in a little jar and redeemed by a caramelized banana-hazelnut topping.
The entire menu at Oak+Almond will change and flow with the seasons, a mantra that is often touted, but rarely executed well. Here, this talented chef not only knows what ingredients to use, but is wonderfully creative with them.
OAK + ALMOND
544 Main Ave.
203-846-4600 / www.oakandalmond.com
Hours: Lunch daily 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner Monday-Saturday 4-10 p.m., Sunday 4-9 p.m.
Credit cards: AE, V, MC
Prices: Dinner -- appetizers $14-$5, main courses $42-$16, desserts $8-$2