Mini reviews: Louie's Bar & Grille, Chili's, Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen

Let's raise the curtain on another episode of Three Interesting Things I've Eaten Lately.

What's great about this construct is that I'm the sort of hungry kook who can find culinary wonder in all sorts of places. For example, once, in the span of a very few hours, I had the spiced-pecan-crusted Gulf Redfish with lump crabmeat and crushed corn sauce at Commander's Palace and then a sackful of cheeseburgers at Krystal.

Each was spectacular in its own fashion.

In that spirit of adventure:

BBQ Pork Ribs at Louie's Bar & Grille in New London

You'd think this was a natural idea since one of the new owners of Louie's is John Russell, former patriarch at Russell's Ribs in Groton. And yet … Russell at first didn't want the psychological baggage of putting ribs on the Louie's menu - particularly since he's not actually in the kitchen - and preferred to start afresh in a new building with a new partner and a new concept.

Customers, though, were persistent and wondered where the ribs were. Javier Newton, one of Russell's chefs at Louie's, said, Hey, I can do spectacular ribs. Russell decided they could trot out ribs as an occasional special. But Newton's ribs were so immediately successful that, ultimately, they were added to the menu.

This is a very good thing because they're terrific.

You can get a generous half-rack for $9.95 (full rack for $16.95) and they come with serviceable fries and the sweet, made-from-scratch cornbread old Russell's Ribs fans will recall happily. The ribs are meaty and lean, wonderfully tender and smokey, eager to flake off the bone with the gentle prod of a fork. In glorious contrast, the sorcerer's dry rub is peppery, charred and carmelized to exquisitely to provide a flavorful surface crunch. They're lightly daubed with a tart sauce you almost don't know is there, but it's just the exact amount required for an added exclamation point of taste.

Sweet Maple BBQ Chicken Crispers at Chili's in New London

Many of my friends and colleagues are aghast that I will occasionally haunt a chain fern bar like Chili's. Frankly, I like Chili's. Of all those franchises, I find their work consistently satisfying, and they typically offer some menu items from my beloved South that I can't find elsewhere in these parts.

Of course, the New London Chili's closed after suffering significant fire damage in March of last year, so it was good news - to me, anyway - that they kicked off 2011 with the doors again open. In addition to the traditional offerings, they've broken out some new menu items. One I enjoy is the sweet maple barbecue chicken crispers ($9.99).

A word of warning: they're not kidding about "sweet." What you have are several large, white meat tenders, delicately fried in an airy batter reminiscent of tempura, then topped with a maple glaze. What I like about the sweetness of the sauce is that it's similar to the Deep South chicken 'n' waffles idea - which is what it sounds like: the breakfast waffle with butter and maple syrup and, yes, fried chicken. You either get it or you don't.

Personally, I like it on special occasions - and that this dish is on the Chili's menu is good to know. A suggestion would be to get the maple sauce on the side, and you can govern how heavily you want to maple-ize the tenders. The platter comes with excellent skins-on french fries and an ear of sweet corn. The latter's probably frozen, but it's liberally buttered and nice in a textural contrast to the rest of the components.

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo Bowl at Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen in New London

As hard as it is to believe, I recently made a batch of gumbo that, well ... it wasn't great. I seem to be reaching that age where all skills are diminishing, and it actually doesn't make me sad as much as it makes me sleepy.

I suppose I could have just gone to Popeye's since they recently added a chicken and sausage gumbo bowl ($3.95) to their menu. It's peculiar: this stuff is pretty damned authentic - and yet I can discern no celery, green pepper, onion or okra. Instead, there's just a beautiful, murky roux the color of scorched peanut butter, coins of Andouille sausage and small-to-medium chunks of tender breast meat chicken, and a thick clump of white rice for ballast. The sausage wasn't as tangy as I prefer, but I added a few packets of hot sauce, and everything was happy.

Plus, it's a good sized bowl and a true bargain for the price. Add one of their intoxicating biscuits to dip in the roux, and you've got a remarkable and cheap fun-infusion.

R.KOSTER@THEDAY.COM

BBQ Pork Ribs at Louie's Bar & Grille

119 Broad St., New London

(860) 442-9495

louiesbarandgrille.com

Sweet Maple BBQ Chicken Crispers at Chili's Grill & Bar

369 North Frontage Road, New London

(860) 444-0335

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo Bowl at Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen

455 Colman St., New London

(860) 772-2073

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