Have you been to Luxe Wine Bar in Westport recently? Yes, the doors shut for a spell, devastating the late night crowd of oenophiles and restaurant industry employees – for in its short run, Luxe quickly became the default post-dinner service destination. As a local restaurant manager, I identify with this crowd, and I can vividly remember the moment I first read of the bar’s closing on its Facebook page. Immediately, I felt a sad sense of nostalgia, reminiscing on the many after work trapezoidal-shaped glasses of Vouvray I had swirled and sipped served alongside a cutting board of various local salami, prosciutto, jamon, and cheese – particularly, the triple cream…that sweet, sensuous triple cream. One night, after finishing our assortment of charcuterie, a friend and I very naturally ordered it exactly the same once more, simply realizing it had ended too soon.
But, alas – good news! Luxe has reopened under new ownership after undergoing a stylized facelift. Lipstick red cushions now cover both the barstools and the silver chairs from the original location, perched invitingly alongside candlelit silver tables and beside windows draped with romantic curtains of the same bold red.
“What are you in the mood for?” the bartender Chris asks with a head tilt of sincerity as I mount a barstool and he pours me a glass of water. My answer, upon breathing in the bar’s evocative dim lighting and sultry songs of The Black Keys, was red wine and chocolate. With Chris’ help, I ordered an assortment of five Knipschilt’s chocolates and a wine to pair.
The chocolates, all which were featured in Chocopologie Chef Knipschilt’s chocolate-inspired Valentine’s Day dinner, each boast rich personalities and saucy women’s names to match. They vary from Cecilia, the caramel and lavender-infused white chocolate, to Ana Carlota, the green peppercorn white chocolate ganache topped with Cyprus black lava salt; all perfectly complemented by the wine – a fruity, dry Cotes du Roussillon with a soft finish and pleasant mouth feel.
As I indulge in one chocolate to the next, starting at the bottom of the dish and, abiding by Chris’s suggestion, continuing clockwise as to end with the spiciest variation, I begin chatting with David Morton, the new owner. He had recently declared an interest in purchasing a business; and upon his first visit to Luxe, immediately recognized its potential. Having obtained a unique professional background ranging from marketing to aerodynamic product purchasing, Morton brings a refreshing perspective to the bar and restaurant culture of Fairfield County.
“Owners sort of fall in love with themselves,” he said. “I’m most concerned with customer satisfaction and people falling in love with the place. People aren’t coming to Luxe to see me; they’re coming to enjoy a cocktail and conversation.”
Conversation is one of Morton’s pillars in his philosophy of developing Luxe’s identity. In regards to the decision to provide strictly finger foods on the ever-evolving menu, “A fork and knife is too intrusive – it inhibits conversation.”
You’ll also never see a television mounted on the walls, as televisions tend to isolate the individual and remove him or her from the collective conversation that tends to occur organically among customers in such an intimate setting, Morton explains.
However, you will see many dramatic changes to the setting in the coming months; Morton has big plans for the evolving atmosphere of Luxe – including a name change. He recently got a motion approved to take advantage of their downtown location by building French doors that will open to an outdoor patio and a fire pit. He hopes that as the warm weather approaches, Luxe will attract a weekday afternoon crowd with the occasional live musical performance. “We’d like to be a place where shoppers can take a break and relax with us over a glass of wine,” he says.
He also stresses that these changes will occur gradually, as to encourage curiosity and mystery so that every visit will be new and exciting.
And, the employees admit, every visit to Luxe is exciting. The collective conversational culture among customers encouraged by the comfortable atmosphere has become what makes Luxe so special. Unlike many nightlife spots in Fairfield county that tend to attract a specific crowd, the Luxe clientele varies from young to old, student to professional, singles to couples. Chris shared a scene of simpatico from a few nights before when two separate couples and a homeless man – who had mistaken the bar for a liquor store – effortlessly formed a friendship, sharing stories and shots while sitting together at the bar.
On my Tuesday night visit, I happened to join this collective conversation, meeting a pair of ladies, one who openly professed her frustration of her life as a foodie married to a vegetarian who refuses to eat vegetables. “He eats pizza and French fries and has a cat,” she exclaimed. “Thanks for telling me that, eHarmony!”
Her frustration was met with good company of empathy, as foodies often frequent Luxe for its impeccable assortment of local meat and cheese, ranging from Coach Farms goat cheese to Bayley Hazen Blue, as well as a selection of fresh vegetables and hummus. And with the promise of an expanding kitchen and a newly hired chef, Renee Silva, the menu will soon grow to include Panini’s and other well-crafted finger foods.
But essentially, Luxe is a bar, not a restaurant. Moving forward, Morton hopes to attract a tasteful weekday crowd. As a newcomer to the restaurant industry, he comes with a set of morals and business ethics obtained from other professional fields that he believes will prevent Luxe from falling into the trap of pretentiousness and earning the dreadful reputation of an overrated bar.
“We aren’t charging $14 a glass to be pretentious. We only want to offer really great wine,” he says.
Although their wine list is great, it is their progressive cocktail menu that alienates and exalts Luxe above other area bars; the menu an ever-evolving experiment created by their renowned beverage director, Jeff Marron. Later that week, after a grueling 10-hour Saturday shift, I revisited Luxe and had the pleasure of meeting this cocktail connoisseur.
“Here’s a Hanky Panky – made with two years of love,” Jeff admits while painstakingly placing a martini glass filled with a caramel-colored liquid before me, as if confessing an admiration. The “Hanky Panky” is a seamless blend of equal parts gin and sweet vermouth with a dash of Frenet Branca; topped with a lemon peel. It drinks easily, as almost straight liquor, an effervescent smoky blend of sweetness, pine, and herbs.
Jeff, a pioneer in the art of drink, barrel ages his own concoctions over a period of several months until they marry and become one. His first experiment came as an accident, a few years back, when a Long Island Iced Tea mixture, sans cola and sour mix, fermented in an oak barrel for 13 months. The result?
“We couldn’t stop drinking it,” says Jeff. “We had parties around it. It had blended into one.”
He began experimenting with this newfound method, combining a wide variety of alcohols, all the while abstaining from adding organic liquids. Soon enough, his repertoire grew. Now, Jeff often holds press dinners, bringing barrels of Negroni’s or Manhattans for wide-eyed patrons, and thoroughly enjoys witnessing their reactions.
My reaction was no different. I was in awe of Jeff’s talent, his sheer ability to use his sense of scent to judge the consistency of drinks shaken by his assistant bartender, who would extend drinks still in their mixing glass towards him, in hopes of a blessing from this demigod of drink. Sometimes he’d shake his head, saying, “Stir it a bit more,” or “It just needs a touch more of this…” until the drink lived up to his impeccable standard.
While Marron works his magic, Morton stands by, offering assistance any way he can. They make a great team; each one complements the other. Together, they plan on infusing barrel-aged cocktails into the heart of Luxe; eagerly envisioning oak casks filled with aged liquors stacked alongside the bar. The new barrels will represent Luxe’s revitalized character and serve many purposes – drink storage, decoration, and most importantly, to spark conversation.