Our reviewers, once again, went to 52 restaurants this year. Here are their favorites and some food destinations they regularly visit:
55 Beach St., Westerly
There must be some sort of geographic, karmic confluence around here that creates the most favorable conditions for Chinese joints and pizza houses. They seem to thrive and multiply in these parts like no other cheap eats do.
So I get excited when there's a new guy in town, especially when it's someone swarthy and bold, someone like Markos.
It's a simple setting in the back of a shopping plaza but inside you will find the cuisine of kings: steaming bowls of Avgolemono soup; hummus with pita chips, thin and crispy and fresh from the fryer; and piping hot falafel shaped like mini donuts, crunchy on the outside, creamy and fragrant with spices within.
The menu of Arabic, Greek and Mediterranean delights with a little Indian, Caribbean and vegan thrown in includes spanakopita, calamari, kabobs, mussaka, beef tajine and even chicken tikka masala. There's also an array of wraps. My favorite is the Cypriot Combo: tender chicken, succulent souvlaki (a kind of spicy, meatloaf, grilled and sliced thin), tangy pickles, fresh tomatoes and the right amount of lettuce, united by the creamy hummus and tzatziki.
This place is worth a New Year's resolution.
7 Commerce St., Westerly
Nestled between the Pawcatuck River and the Washington Trust Community Skating Rink, Ten Sandwiches perfectly executes a simple concept - 10 sandwiches, local ingredients and a beer and wine license. Brilliant.
Eggs from Buffoni Farm in Johnston, fresh mozzarella from Narragansett Creamery in Providence, and the bread - oh the bread - from Vesta bakery, which is just across town on Railroad Avenue, all add up to sandwiches that make you happy, sandwiches to which all others must be compared.
The No. 8, a vegan sweet potato-quinoa burger, mixed fruit salsa, avocado and house-made vegan herb mayo on a vegan bun, and the No. 3, tender roast beef with melty cheese and just the right amount of smokey, spicy mayo, topped with fried, crunchy shallots on a weck roll, must be sampled to be believed.
The spicy, sweet potato-quinoa burger, the creamy avocado, the herb mayo, all on a pillowly roll is a meal on a bun. And let's face it. If you put crunchy fried shalllots on a sandwich, you're serious. You have come to play. The No. 3 is a spicy, roast beef experience that, once you've tried it, you'll crave.
There's also an energy here that you can't miss, a youthful charm that makes its way into the food and draws you back again and again. Definitely worth the trip.
THE SPICE CLUB
239 MAIN, ST., Niantic
No question: My favorite new restaurant from 2012 is The Spice Club. It's a gorgeous but comfortable place with a gracious and smiling staff. It's a pan-Asian menu with an emphasis on Thai and sushi but also featuring Japanese and Pacific Rim touches. In several visits, we've never been disappointed with any aspect of the experience. (Okay, wait: one night the draft beer taps were broken. I got over it with a few more slabs of sashimi.) I emphatically suggest you try this place and, also, make a reservation. Trust me.
- Rick Koster
429 Colman St., New London
Not that I wish to check-out anytime soon, but my epitaph will read: He Was a Man of Cola. Yes, those familiar with my day-to-day routine can testify that I pretty much only sip fountain Diet Coke if I'm awake. Which makes the new, post-NASA designer fountain drink machine on Colman Street in New London a favored destination and a high point in the Foodie Experience for 2012. Designed in part by the folks who make Ferrari's - I'm not kidding - the BK cola-rocket is a push-button mechanism that, along with the numerous available drink flavors, means the ambitious Thirsty Person can explore more than 125 possible soft drink combinations.
- Rick Koster
452 Williams St., New London
If e'er there's an impasse in Castle Koster about where to go eat, the always-satisfactory compromise is to head to Mr. G's in New London. Not only do the staff and atmosphere earn an extremely loyal set of customers, the menu is varied, portions are large and the results are always satisfying. Plus, the folks at G are always trying something new. In 2012 they instituted a weekend breakfast menu, and their Fish & Grits platter, with any-style eggs, toast or biscuits and home fries, is my choice as the coolest new meal of the year. Flaky, crisply-fried planks of flounder, authentic Southern-style grits (go heavy on the butter and pepper) and scrambled eggs. Beautiful - and then it's off to nap!
- Rick Koster
OAK ST. B&B
87 Oak St., Westerly
Cue the Julie Andrews: "Cream cheese on burgers and crisp chips of potatoes/these are a few of my favorite things." I don't get there often enough, but I still think about the genius of Oak St. B&B, a new twist on the term meaning burgers and breakfast. More specifically, I think about the perfect balance of flavors on the Big Kahuna burger - sweet grilled pineapple and cream cheese with the savory meat. There's also the soft sweet rolls upon which the burgers are served! And the homemade Oak chips "dressed" in the delight that is rosemary, garlic and truffle oil! How did I never go back to try the Elvis, with American cheese, peanut butter and bacon? At least I've decided on my New Year's resolution now. (Oh and the breakfast is pretty great too.)
- Katie Warchut
959 Poquonnock Road, Groton
A steaming hot bowl of pho practically the size of a hubcap: this is what keeps me coming back to Phantasia. Sure, they have a loooong menu of Chinese/Szechuan options, but the Vietnamese delight that is so much more than a soup is what makes Phantasia special in these parts. The rich and meaty broth with cinnamon and anise notes hosts a tangle of soft noodles and your choice of meat: everything from beef, chicken and shrimp to tripe, tendon, brisket and navel for the more adventurous. Make it your own signature dish by adding the toppings - bean sprouts, basil, lime and hot sauce - and you have a happily filling meal. Also try the chao tom, pounded shrimp hash on a grilled skewer of sugarcane, a nice salty-sweet balance that you make into little rice wraps.
- Katie Warchut
885 Boston Post Road, Madison
Some of the greatest meals of my life have been at restaurants where the staff realizes the art of timing. Good food matters, of course, but truly professional service might as well be its own dessert.
All of that happens at Elizabeth's Cafe in Madison, a restaurant that sprang from the successful Perfect Parties catering company. It was here that I've sampled the best Beef Bourginnone of my entire life and dynamite fresh pasta with very good Chicken Saltimbocca. Plus, the cocktail menu is wildly imaginative and the wine list superb. Add in romatinc lighting and you've got a great date - and food - destination on the Connecticut shoreline.
TISSA'S LE SOUK DU MAROC AND THE JAMES SODA FOUNTAIN2 PENNYWISE LANE,
Yep, it's a Moroccan restaurant in a historic building in historic Old Saybrook that offers ice cream from an old-fashioned fountain. What's not to love?
Very little, as it turns out. Everything I've ever sampled at Tissa's has been a delight. The Lemon Chicken Tagine quite possibly has changed my life, and the fresh hummus we sampled was everything hummus should be-I can barely abide supermarket varieties as a result.
Moroccan foods are multi-sensory experiences: they are colorful, they smell divine, and the distinct spice blends warm the belly and soul. Tissa's has that nailed, and the folks who run the place are incredibly pleasant. The cherry on top, of course, is the ice cream counter with all the classic sundaes and flavors, plus the appropo cinnamon/clove-y Morroccan Delight ice cream. The extra cherry on top? A small retail space that offers a selection of fine Mediterranean sundries and provisions.
OLD LYME INN
85 Lyme St., Old Lyme Newly re-opened by the Kitchings family, the inn featured three chefs whose task was to impress while the owners set a tone that welcomes. Wonderful combination. Several dishes we enjoyed six months ago still linger in memory: Tandoori lamb chops, baked Alaska and spring pea soup.
BALLO RESTAURANT AND SOCIAL CLUB
Next to the Ocean House in Watch Hill, Ballo, a replicated palazzo, has the most polished service of any restaurant 'round here, The waitstaff double-teamed our table in perfect sync with each other and the timing from the kitchen, which added to the whole experience of carefully chosen ingredients served at exactly the right time and temperature. Try the arancini.
KENSINGTON'S, at The Spa At Norwich Inn
607 West Thames St., Norwich
The rich, classic decor of Kensington's makes it one of the area's most opulent dining rooms, but its menu nimbly avoids the heavy cuisine you might expect from such a robber-baron look. That's because it caters to spa guests looking for light but lively. A lunchtime "chicken vegetable" soup was unlike any other except, perhaps, that of a really creative home cook who wanted to use the asparagus and spinach right from the garden.