Ah, the post-holiday slump. January, February, three-quarters of March – dreary gray days, not so much on the “What To Do in Connecticut This Weekend” website. We all need a bit of a lift, and nothing gives a lift like good cuisine and good company. And West Haven is home to two new establishments that fit the bill.
Moby Dick’s Cafe opened in September on Campbell Avenue near Center Street and has developed a loyal and diverse following in three short months. Owner Doug Ruickoldt had restaurant ownership in his blood. His grandmother and father ran Ruickoldt’s in New Haven for years, and his father also ran Billy’s Cafe on Sawmill Road for a couple of decades. So, after a long career with Metro North, Doug and partner Evan Mink spent four months gutting the former Sonny’s, and brought back the original name, as well as the beauty of the cherry ceiling beams and original copper-topped bar. Diligent work on those antique fixtures was coupled with a new subtle maritime motif, from the unique lit-porthole frames along the wall to the Manhattan-style black and white tile floor, high top tables handmade by Ruickoldt’s son Nick (complete with whale fluke purse holders) and an open kitchen with an oyster station theme
Ruickholdt felt it was a no-brainer to open in West Haven.
“I love the town, love the people. It might sound a little corny, but I’m a true Westie,” he said. Partner Mink is also a West Haven native, and feels the same. When asked why the pair chose downtown, Ruickoldt said that he remembers what downtown was like.
“You had Silver’s, Liggett’s, Horowitz’s, Mario and Joseph’s, Herzog’s…you could get everything you needed here. It was a beautiful downtown. I would love to see it come back to where it was,” he said.
Moby Dick’s has a short menu, which concentrates on what they do best. Of course, there’s the raw bar, featuring clams and shrimp the size of small chicken drumsticks, as well as various and sundry oyster varieties which vary by day and are sourced fresh daily.
“People love oysters!” exclaims Ruickoldt.
The raw bar is the only one in West Haven, and also features a “skyscraper” and a “seafood tower” (oysters, clams, shrimp, and crabmeat) perfect for sharing. The lobster bisque and clam chowder are favorites, along with their flatbreads sliders and cast iron skillet macaroni and cheese. All food is made in-house by “Chef Jeff” Lamberti (formerly of the West End Bistro). Even the juices are all freshly squeezed daily. “Orange, grapefruit, lemon, lime…” Ruickoldt enumerates them with pride.
“People love it. We don’t use drink mixes. It’s all house-made,” he said. They’re also popular for their very nice selection of good wines. Happy Hour runs daily from 3-6 weekdays with $2 off mixed drinks and $1 off beer and wine, and you absolutely cannot beat the new Tuesday specials, featuring half price oysters as well as mac and cheese and meatball slider specials and several other great offerings (including those beyond-jumbo shrimp)..
“We’re getting a lot of people from out of town,” the owner continues “Southbury, Fairfield, Seymour, Shelton — not just the neighboring towns.” He recounts how a Fairfield couple told him how much they love the place and couldn’t wait to return. But, Ruickoldt is quick to add, he also is seeing more and more young couples who live within walking distance stopping by, as well as residents who commute to New York daily and just don’t want to make dinner.
But of all the things of which the owners are very justifiably proud, Ruickoldt says he’s most proud of Moby Dick’s “professional staff, welcoming atmosphere, being a place where people can come and enjoy themselves and have a good day or night out.” It also has a coziness according to the owner – “Not small, but cozy…comfortable.”
Lisa Sweeney, one of Moby’s friendly bartenders, adds, “People come in as strangers, but the next time they come in, it’s like, ‘oh, I remember what you drink…'” And customers then become friends.
Meanwhile, down by the shoreline at Captain Thomas Boulevard in the former ramen restaurant Oak Beach Bar & Grill has opened to great fanfare.
Oak Beach is overseen by owners Gino Fetta and his son Luigi Fetta, as well as cousin Al Dinofrio and friend Mark Lynch. Much like Ruickoldt and Mink, the owners found that a total gutting of the property had to take place with a lot of hand-built and personal touches now in place: It’s also subtly nautical, all beachy greys (as opposed to the dreary ones mentioned in our opening paragraph) and neutrals.
Gino Pere, a lifelong butcher and the meat man behind the original iteration of the Savin Rock Roasting Company, has been in the business all his life starting with years at Rose’s Supermarket. Luigi is “a great mixologist with a passion for food” who worked on the Gold Coast with Dinofrio, Oak Beach’s chef and so brought him in. Here, too, the menu concentrates on a tidy selection of varied dishes that the restaurant knows they do best.
The owners here originally were looking at Milford for their establishment, but Jimmy Greenberg, owner of the building on Captain Thomas, told them it was available.
“West Haven is a great community,” Gino Sr. says. Also born and raised here, he was thrilled with this news. Son Gino (or as many of the customers seem to call him, “Little Gino”) says that he loves the Captain Thomas-Ocean Avenue corridor.
“I call it the yellow brick road,” he laughs.
Photos of the shoreline dot the brick walls and, proudly over the front window, there’s the painted plaque that proclaims we’re in 06516 territory.
Chef Al Dinofrio says that the secret to success, learned from long years in the industry, is simple.
“Fresh ingredients. Everything from scratch, second to none. And consistency is very important.”
Systems are implemented to keep quality constant.
“Fresh product in, fresh product out,” declares Dinofrio. “We already have a great product, but we’re always fine tuning to make it exceptional.” He also adds that the employees are wonderful and “excited to sell something unique and different and so good,” he said.
The most popular dish is the Gino’s burger (proprietary meat mixture on Bibb lettuce, with ripe beefsteak tomato and red onion on a fluffy, soft potato roll served with cole slaw and fries), followed by the uber-popular steak and cheese sandwich and then the angelically light ricotta dumplings (Oak Beach’s very superior turn on traditional gnocchi).
“It’s simply ricotta, fine flour, rolled and cut by hand, with a sauce of San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and basil,” says Dinofrio.
The Teres Major filet is a beef cut most people have never even heard of but it’s making quite a name for itself thanks to this restaurant. Meatballs are also devoured in large numbers. Customer Lisa DeRosa entered and asked for a redux of the cream of broccoli soup which was a special the week before.
“It was the best I ever ate,” she said. “I wanted to order two.” She was there urgng Gino Sr. to put it on the menu permanently.
After only four weeks the owners are clearly overjoyed with the concern and are having a great time with their customers.
“This is a restaurant like you haven’t seen, and won’t see again,” Gino Sr. says.
“They’re very happy that this is a place where people can just be themselves,” Gino Jr. adds.
When asked what makes Oak Beach stand out. Gino looks around at the crowd and his staff and says, “This is a family. This is what I wanted.”
Two great ways to beat the winter blahs