The Day's food critics make '09 picks

Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

As the year draws to a close, the Day's food critics have each rounded up a trio of their favorite restaurants from 2009.

CHARLES T. CLARK'S PICKS:

Mirch Masala

156 Kings Highway, Groton

(860) 445-8043

Now entering its fifth year, Mirch Masala proves that well-managed restaurants can remain eternally fresh. Mirch Masala features perhaps the most ambitious and unconventional Indian menu in the region, while offering the beloved standbys that are central to its lunch buffet. But come prepared to experiment and enjoy the Andra Pepper Chicken or a vegetarian dosa (a huge and paper thin crepe). There are several lamb and goat offerings, fish cooked in coconut milk, and a variety of biryanis, those addictive rice dishes that exude the perfume of this fantastically rich cuisine.

The Pita Spot

45 Williams Ave., Mystic

(860) 415-4656

Owner Vivian Torregross and her brothers Eddie and Tony rescued the Diamond Deli, kept its breakfast menu, and transformed the space into a warm and cozy spot for Lebanese lunches and dinners. The siblings specialize in kebabs, wraps, delicious entrees (try the La La Chicken) and of course those various savory meze like hummus, falafel, and babaganoush that transport you right to the shores of the Mediterranean. Moudardara is an addictive blend of rice and lentils topped with a shower of fried onions. Try also the Lebanese sausage (Makanek), redolent of clove and cinnamon, and The Pita Spot's ethereal moussaka, which will forever banish the notion of eggplant bound in cheese sauce. Bring a bottle of wine.

David Burke Prime at Foxwoods

Foxwoods Resort Casino

(860) 312-8753

Don't be put off by the vast casino: leave your car with the valet and head up to the second floor of Foxwoods to feast at a steak house that doesn't stop at providing good beef. While the dry-aged steaks yield wonderfully tender meat - tender as it could (or should) be - the kitchen doesn't flag when it comes to chicken (the pan roasted chicken with mushrooms and marsala was tender to the fork) and appetizers, including a spot-on corn chowder. There is also a hearty raw bar. The enormous space is broken into more intimate sections, and the service couldn't have been better on the night of our visit. A meal is concluded with a festive bowl of cotton candy, but don't let that keep you from ordering one of the kitchen's delicious desserts.

RICK KOSTER'S PICKS:

Jalapeno Heaven

40 N. Main St., Branford

(203) 481-6759

While Groton's very fine Ortega's keeps most of us alive who are familiar with authentic Tex-Mex (and desperate for its medicinal and caloric properties), it's also worth the drive to Branford to wallow in the greatness of JH. The menu's creative spin-offs fuse trad Tex-Mex with Central Mexican cuisine and the results are consistently excellent and mind-blowing. For example: De Gallo, a chef's specialty with your choice of cubed swordfish or shrimp sauteed in garlic, butter and wine with cilantro, tomatoes, onion, black olives, and green chilies over a bed of Spanish rice and fresh grilled veggies. Food as heroin.

Carlo and Son Quality Meats

299 Flanders Road, East Lyme

(860) 739-9999

Here in the Land of the Grinder, I challenge you to sample any of the wondrous creations at Carlo and Son and not leave happy, delighted and thinking of their sammiches in a superlative context. Try God's own chicken salad (my title) or the dense and awesome quintessential Italian. Also: a courteous and eager to please family outfit runs the place.

Harp & Dragon

130 Main St., Norwich

(860) 885-0147

Irish pubs are good things. Faulkner wrote that. Not really. But this Norwich Irish pub combines a great bar area, cordial staff and spirits, and superb variations of the indigenous comfort foods, including a bountiful Shepherd's Pie. Please try, as well, the Blarney Cheese Steak appetizer, which is a sliders-style variation featuring dinner rolls and an abundance of steak 'n' cheese sublimity.

KATIE WARCHUT'S PICKS:

Two Wives Pizza

45 Huntington St., New London

(860) 447-9337

Specialty brick oven pizzas are not a new phenomenon, but when they're done well - in a nice downtown space - customers will keep coming back. Tasty ingredients make up some of our favorites, like the four cheese, lasagna and BBQ chicken pizzas that come in personal sizes so that fellow diners never have to compromise.

Passion Coffee House

43 Bank St., New London

(860) 447-9088

What we love best about this Colombian coffee house is the mix of culture and class it brings to New London. The owners' and servers' hospitality feels authentic, and their specialty - coffee - inspires the decor. They offer an array of largely meat-centric dinners, small tapas plates and breakfast. Don't leave without one of the sweet arepas, a Colombian specialty.

Bruna's Table

12 Canal St., Westerly

(401) 637-4888

This slow-food restaurant exuded the feel of old-world Italy, updating classic Italian dishes without having to "fuse" them with any other cuisine. With the antique-style plates and terra cotta-colored walls, the place envelops you in the Tuscan and Abruzzese influences, offering pasta, sirloin, shrimp and veal dishes.

MICHAEL COSTANZA'S PICKS:

New York Pizza & Pasta Co.

123 Norwich Road (Route 12), Plainfield

(860) 564-9400

When I moved a few towns up the I-395 corridor a couple of years ago, I set out exploring to find a good restaurant. This place on Route 12 has turned into my favorite. The bar boasts far more than 100 beers, including all those tasty microbrews you've never heard of, and the selection changes all the time. Catch ball games and UFC cage fights on pay-per-view. The kitchen produces incredibly bold pizzas, and more, with daring and intense flavors. Try the Flamin' Philly cheesesteak pizza, complete with cherry peppers and Tabasco sauce, or the No Kiss Tonight with whole cloves of garlic and about 27,000 varieties of onions. Don't be shy about tasting the Love Salad or the buffalo cheese fries either.

Steak Loft

Olde Mistick Village, 27 Coogan Boulevard, Mystic

(860) 536-2661

Since 1973, Steak Loft has been the gem of Mystic, for both tourists and locals, outshining a slew of overrated restaurants in the downtown. You might say Steak Loft is always a safe bet, but that doesn't do it justice. Nobody makes a better steak in the region. In fact, the place has won a Readers' Choice Award for Best Steak from Connecticut Magazine every year since 1983. The teriyaki is out of this world, and the salad bar is also hard to beat. Let's face it - if you had to think fast and recommend a great restaurant in southeastern Connecticut, Steak Loft is always near the top of the list.

Café Mangia

68 Linwood Ave. (Route 16), Colchester

(860) 537-7707

With their roots on Federal Hill in Providence, it figures that the owners of Café Mangia would know how to make a first-rate cannoli. They've earned plenty of praise for their delicious dessert, but they make some other pretty mean Italian-inspired dishes, too. This is where I tasted the creamiest risotto of my life, and I still catch myself daydreaming from time to time about the steak tip bruschetta appetizer in a creamy-thick parmigiano sauce. The front porch of this old Victorian house is a wonderful place for supper on a breezy, summery evening, and the service is outstanding. In fact, the waitress who served us should get a raise.

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