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Our favorite restaurants we reviewed in 2011

Published December 29. 2011 4:00AM

Octagon

Mystic Marriott Hotel & Spa

625 North Road, Groton

Hotel restaurants get a bum rap, and it's partly their fault. For ages, poorly managed hotels paid little attention to their kitchens, presumably because they felt they had a captive audience. Things have changed, and Octagon, at the Mystic Marriott, is a fine example. Two of us went last summer, midweek, and found the place nearly empty. A sense of dread quickly vanished with the first course, a fresh asparagus, arugula and crab salad, artfully prepared and presented. Things got even better. We shared, and devoured, a 14-ounce Black Angus steak and a seared salmon filet on a bed of julienned celery root. Our dessert, a cherry clafoutis, sent us back to a tiny kitchen in southern France. I regretted so few people seemed to know about this hidden treasure.

- CHARLES T. CLARK

Mr. G's Restaurant

425 Williams St., New London

One should never take the greatness of Mr. G's for granted. A dining experience there - the welcoming service, the very fine food, the ambience of family and comfort and belonging? It's like the first time you beheld the Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek, except you couldn't walk in and order a pizza. On the surface, Mr. G's might seem like just another pizza and grinder restaurant. But it's e'er so much more. The menu is expansive and pushes happy Greek/Italian culinary buttons. The daily specials embrace such wondrous comfort foods as lobster mac 'n' cheese and pot roast.

- RICK KOSTER

Oyster Club

13 Water St., Mystic

Oyster Club really capitalizes on its farm- and sea-to table mission, presenting a menu that changes daily, bringing in food from local farms and fishermen. It's pricey, but its décor and staff maintain a casual feel. You can keep it laid-back and go with a burger or lobster roll, or try one of the fish, meat or pasta dishes. And get as many deliciously fresh oysters as you can handle.

- KATIE WARCHUT

The Rabbit Hole/

Jack Rabbit's 

254 Main St., Old Saybrook

Burger-making is in a renaissance right now, and lucky us, we're smack dab in a regional nexus of Gourmet Burger Heaven. For my money, the best place to get the best of burger fixes remains The Rabbit Hole (with full bar)/Jack Rabbit's (same thing, no bar). Beyond perfectly executed, juicy burgers, the clever array of burger styles makes for a far more exciting meal than your standard burger-and-fries platter. Think Buffalo Bill Burgers (with bleu cheese and celery greens) or the Pepé Le Pew (caramelized apples, smoked bacon and brie). The hot dog menu is equally inventive. Go hungry, and you'll definitely leave satisfied.

- MARISA NADOLNY

Bar Bouchée

8 Scotland Ave., Madison

Madison's Bar Bouchée sprang from New Haven's Union League Café late last year and quickly established itself as the most sophisticated culinary voice in the region. You can savor feather-light pike dumplings (Quenelles de Brochet) in a fabulous lobster sauce; lush asparagus topped with a perfectly poached egg; a hangar steak served with a fine Béarnaise and a mound of crisp fried potatoes; and cod Lyonnais paired with caramelized onions and sautéed new potatoes. Yes, this is a list of classic French dishes, not necessarily haute cuisine, but comfort food of the very highest order. My only complaint is one sits at high bar stools close to one's neighbor; it can get noisy. It's also not terribly convenient for those in wheelchairs. Let's hope Bar Bouchée takes hold in this economy, and management can address comfort and access issues as it leaps further into its second year.

- CHARLES T. CLARK

Voodoo Grill

12 Water St., Mystic

For a decade, the Voodoo has enjoyed a loyal following not just among folks who've been introduced to gumbo, jambalaya, pulled pork and country fried steak - but also with Dixie expatriates desperate for a flavorful linchpin to Home. The New Orleans stuff is nicely represented. Also worth noting are the country fried chicken or steak (which I associate with Texas); pulled pork (Tennessee and the Carolinas); and St. Louis ribs. It's an ambitious menu, wonderfully pulled off by Chef Tom Watts, a Florida native who knows the nuances of Southern cooking.

- RICK KOSTER

The Neon Chicken 

88A Howard St., New London

It's funny how we might drive by something every day - and never really take note of it. So it is with me and the Neon Chicken. It's a small dine-in/take-out establishment featuring marinated rotisserie chicken, plate lunches, fresh vegetables and sandwiches. This is a pleasant, rewarding food option operated by friendly folks who know what they're doing. The signature rotisserie chicken was imbued with a smoky rotisserie flavor, and the crisp exterior skin had a carmelized sweetness and a texture as thin as brittle rice paper.

- RICK KOSTER

Liv's Oyster Bar

166 Main St. # 4, Old Saybrook

I love Liv's. I've never had a bad meal there, and the restaurant's utter freedom from pretention is refreshing. Of course, any meal there can start with oysters from several regions presented in many ways. I've enjoyed them on the half shell and also baked and topped with a savory artichoke/leek/bacon garnish - they have always been impeccably fresh. The raw bar has many other selections, and I recommend the tiny Maine mussels served in a mustardy broth. Last spring, we loved Arctic Char served on a hearty and assertive bed of broccoli rabe, mushrooms, and cippolini onions - a flavor-packed combination. My discriminating partner loved her short ribs prepared in the manner of beef Stroganoff. For dessert, we opted for a splendid pear and mascarpone Napoleon garnished with caramel sauce and a scoop of maple ice cream. A far cry from raw oysters, and a nice conclusion to our feast.

- CHARLES T. CLARK

Malted Barley

42 High St., Westerly

When you're craving beer other than Budweiser and Coors Light, a laid-back atmosphere but not a huge sports bar, and, most important, food that isn't just "bar food," the Malted Barley is the perfect place to go. Their gourmet soft pretzels made on site are a great snack, with a variety of dipping sauces, and the pretzel sandwiches are equally delicious.

- KATIE WARCHUT

The Whole Enchilada

1121 Boston Post Road, Westbrook

A recent trip to The Whole Enchilada in Westbrook reminded me why I love this little chain of eateries. A tempting vegetarian menu (best veggie split-pea soup ever) meets with well-executed standards decked with meats simmered and seasoned to perfection, plus daily specials for both carnivore and herbivore. Last visit I shared the organic salad with my husband, and we high-fived numerous times over how fantastic a choice it is. We also shared a BBQ chicken quesadilla, and I remain amazed at how much flavor it packs between two tortillas.

- MARISA NADOLNY

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