West Street Grill, A Hardy Litchfield Perennial
by Angeline Goreau
Back in May of 1990, long before locavores were thick on the ground in Litchfield county, James O’Shea, formerly a figure in the New York food world, and Charles Kafferman, a businessman, made up their minds not to settle for the woebegone vegetable specimens offered by the local grocers. Their new restaurant, the West Street Grill, would use the freshest ingredients, which, ironically, were hard to find in the midst of Litchfield’s expansive pastoral landscape.
Twenty years on, the gastronomic terrain of Litchfield County has altered radically, and the pioneering Grill has become the beloved eminence grise of West Street.
James O’Shea, a native of Ireland, was already a veteran of the New York City restaurant scene when he and Charles began to shape the idea of creating a sophisticated but laid-back venue for dining in rural Litchfield. James had managed restaurants and written a food column for The Daily News. Charles Kafferman, a veteran of the fashion trade, brought considerable business experience—as well as a delightfully friendly presence—to the table.
Like so many Litchfield residents, each of the partners had moved here in increments, taking a small bite, then a bigger one. In the city, O’Shea, far right in the photo (courtesy Litchfield County Times) had lived next to the offices of Arthur Carter, who, at the time, owned the New York Observer. When Carter bought the Litchfield County Times, it made a splash in the New York press. Intrigued, newshound O’Shea began reading the Connecticut paper. Before he knew it, he had rented a weekend house there. Finally, he bought one.
As for their restaurant, they wanted it to marry the classical with the experimental, sophistication with simplicity, city with country. They wanted to apply the discipline of the French tradition to a truly American cuisine. But, even as they grappled with these lofty and potentially contradictory ambitions, just addressing the basics was an uphill battle. “The only lettuce available locally was rancid iceberg. It was primitive,” O’Shea recalls. Undaunted, he bought a van and drove down to Hunt’s Point and the Fulton Fish Market in the wee hours of the morning. Later, he converted other restaurant owners in the region to his plan, then talked the New York markets into sending trucks out into the countryside with fresh ingredients the restaurnts would share. It took O’Shea a year of determined persuasion to close that deal.
Meanwhile, he had begun to work with local farmers in Litchfield, Falls Village and Washington, encouraging them to grow to kinds of vegetables and herbs he wanted. And he began to grow things in his own garden at the back of his house, which these days, he says, rivals the size of the restaurant’s dining room.
As their first chef, the partners had the good fortune to hire Randy Nichols, a Native American, whose mix of talents included a passion, picked up as a child, for foraging foods from the wild. Similarly James could draw not only on his glamorous New York experience, but also on a childhood spent in the Irish countryside. “I grew up on a farm,” he says, “where centuries-honored practices were continued. Our farm extended up a hillside over Kenmare Bay. Streams and a river nearby ran to the coast. We could see what was happening on the shore”, where people collected what the shoreline offered. “There was a family who made a living picking periwinkles; others gathered mussels, dug for clams in the sand, fished off the old stone pier where small boats would land their catch.”
James’s grandfather and great-uncle collected seaweed to fertilize their land, spreading it over the rhubarb beds and under gooseberry bushes. Even in those days, before the dangers of industrial fertilizers were fully recognized, his family was acutely aware that any chemicals they put on their hillside would run straight down to the sea and poison the environment. Besides, a fall application of seaweed produced unsurpassable rhubarb in the spring.
In Ireland, there’s an ancient tradition of hospitality going back to the early Gaelic period. James explains that the old Brehon laws, thought to be some of the oldest in Europe, dictated that anyone who comes inside your doors must be welcomed. O’Shea’s Irish roots have informed the feel of the West Street Grill. Both Charles and James wanted the Grill to feel like home to the people who dine there. Most nights, they can be seen greeting guests and moving from table to table to chat. Yet one never feels that chatting is obligatory. The West Street Grill is famous for the famous people who go there because they can count on the house’s discretion. From the beginning, the superb food combined with the low-key atmosphere has attracted celebrities such as Sam Waterston, Diane Sawyer and Mike Nichols, Meryl Streep, Wes Anderson, Mia Farrow, Philip Roth and the late Arthur Miller. One memorable afternoon, Milos Foreman came in with the playwright and Czech president Vaclav Havel, whose bodyguards cooled their heels on the Litchfield green.
Never resting on their laurels, James, Charles and their brilliant young chef Jimmy Cosgriff, left, continue to experiment. Cosgriff’s considerable powers of invention are very much in evidence in the perpetually changing menu. “We change, re-arrange, re-interpret,” James says, “but always return to and rely on simplicity and the perfection of ingredients.” If a customer expresses an interest, the partners will ask for opinions on what works and what doesn’t work, what improvements might be made in a dish they’re tinkering with. The pleasure they take in pleasing their diners is palpable.
This season chef Cosgriff has surprised diners with a summer peach and Marcona almond soup infused with mint. Though it seems creamy, the soup hasn’t a drop of cream or butter. This is but one of a large selection of popular vegan soups that lots of diners order with a decidedly non-vegan accompaniment of the irresistible parmesan aioli grilled peasant bread, left, that the West Street Grill has been serving since it opened. A main course might consist of fresh wild striped bass with baby patty pan squash, local corn, roasted tomatoes, all in an aromatic fennel broth. The Grill also does delicious braised short ribs with a gratin of sweet potatoes in a filo crust. For dessert, there is a choice of vegan sorbets in a variety of flavors, a citrusy lime tart (“not for the faint of heart,” James says), or a classic over-the-top Irish banoffee pie—toffee, banana and shaved bittersweet chocolate. In addition to the desserts that regulars expect to see on the menu, the chef might experiment with chocolate cake bursting with fresh blackcurrants or local white peaches poached in basil syrup.
It’s no exaggeration to say that if the West Street Grill hadn’t existed, the citizens of Litchfield County would have had to invent it. A score of years after its founding, the Grill is woven into Litchfield’s center as inextricably as the green itself. Over those two decades, as other restaurants have come and gone, it has endured, evolved, prevailed.
West Street Grill
43 West Street, Litchfield
Lunch & dinner daily.