Soothing setting, soothing fare at Niantic's Main Street Grille

It would be sort of fun to have a Quaint Thoroughfare bracket like you fill-out before March Madness.

The Final Four might pit top-seeded Water Street/Stonington Borough against perennial powerhouse Lyme Street/Old Lyme in one tilt with Main Street/Chester versus upstart Main Street/Niantic.

As someone decidedly Not Rich, I personally love Main Street in Niantic. It's quaint enough to stroll along, feeling all William Buckley about myself, without worrying that Some Big Shot Selectman will have me arrested because my CRV is blocking Some Other Big Shot's view of Steven Spielberg's yacht.

One of the many Niantic glories is Chef Frank Grace's Main Street Grille. A moderately priced, tripartite enclave, the Grille is a terrific place. The handsomely appointed side tavern, with two sporting event-happy televisions and an elegant wooden bar, seems to have a regular crowd.

The main and expansive dining room, with a soothing green and white theme, colorful art on the walls, and panoramic windows that overlook the lower of two sea-breezed decks, and Niantic Bay.

Chase, who formerly ran the higher-end Frank's Gourmet Grille, still offers an ambitiously large and beautifully crafted menu - for example, entree possibilities include seafood, poultry, pasta, comfort foods, steaks, pork and veal - but prices are reasonable. Here are highlights of three recent visits.

Chili con carne ($4.99 crock, $3.99 cup) is a moderately thick, piquant recipe packed with ground beef, tomatoes, beans and spices. For an extra 49 cents, you can have a shroud of cheddar jack placed atop to further entertain.

Lobster bisque ($6.49 crock, $4.99 cup), the glorious color of a Key West sunset, contained plenty of shreds as well as knuckle-sized hunks of the sweet crustacean. The broth is nacho cheese-thick - oyster crackers bob atop like seabirds on a rolling tide - and rich with co-mingling whispers of what seemed to be cream, sherry, and Worcestershire sauce. Great fun.

From Appetizer Land, we particularly liked the breaded, deep-fried Mozzarella squares ($8.49). The plate contained four good-sized squares that weren't all uniform in size, indicating they're probably homemade. The batter created a thin, crispy layer around the still-toasty cheese, and the marinara sauce, resplendant with onion, tomatoes and just a hint of garlic, sparkled on the tongue.

On one trip, we tried a grilled portabella mushroom sammich. The construct was served on a hard roll with spinach, feta cheese and sun-dried tomatoes ($9.99 with fries or cole slaw).

The sizable mushroom was cooked through so it didn't feel raw or tough, and the vinaigrette was light, perfectly tart and apportioned in just the exact amount: the bread didn't disintegrate from sog. Importantly, the spinach, feta and sun-dried tomatoes didn't overwhelm the woody 'shroom flavor, and their personalities and textures made a difference in the overall appeal of the sandwich.

A barbecue pulled pork sandwich ($9.99) followed the most basic and simple instincts: a giant pile of tender, toothsome hunks of shoulder with taste-accents seemingly more cleverly southwestern - was that cumin? - than the vinegar-based Carolina pork of renown.

Entrees were a triumph, too.

My non-cariverous Wife loved the Penne Pasta tossed with broccoli, tomato, shallots, garlic and extra virgin olive oil ($8.99 lunch, $13.99 dinner). If a mountain of pasta can be considered a light dish, this was it: prepared with a wizard's al dente touch and lovingly coated with a delicate sauce, the flavors luxuriated together and the broccoli had a good bite. Der Bride absolutely believed this was not remotely a "throw it on the menu for vegetarians" option. Simple but delicious.

A six-ounce, center cut boneless New York sirloin ($14.99 with two sides) was a lovely, lean piece of beef cooked precisely as ordered. Steaks are a relative proposition: you can pay $40 for a filet in a prime restaurant, and it tastes like it, but it's nice to have an enjoyable and affordable steak as per the Grille's version.

Sides are hit and miss but, on the whole, any visit to the Main Street Grille is a terrific way to experience the overall greatness of Niantic.

Main Street Grille

252 Main St., Niantic
(860) 739-5300, mainstreetgrilleniantic.com

Cuisine: Expansive menu of moderately priced American classics.

Atmosphere: Really comfortable. Large, spacious, soothing dining room overlooking Niantic Bay.

Service: Friendly and knowledgable. Twice, servers have made recommendations that paid off.

Prices: Soups, salads and appetizers $3.29-$19.99; sandwiches and burgers $4.99-$9.99; entrees $13.99-$29.99 (entree lunch prices substantially cheaper for smaller portions).

Reservations: Might be smart to call ahead on weekend nights.

Hours: 11 a.m.-1 a.m. daily.

Handicap access: Easy accomodations via the rear deck area.

Credit cards: All major.

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