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Know what's better than a tavern? A taverne. There's something about that extra "e" that says "beer, grog, stew, warmth, repeat." Last weekend's dreadful weather demanded all of the above, so we headed out to Oliver's Restaurant and Taverne in Essex, home of dressed-up pub fare, many a beer, and a frequent stop for local musicians.
A tavern with an "e" also suggests Things Historic, and Oliver's provides goodly doses of those, too. The restaurant is named for the ship Oliver Cromwell, a Revolutionary-era vessel crafted in Essex. As you mull that one over whilst sipping one of the restaurant's many intriguing cocktails, consider a visit to the second floor, which houses a circa-1903 mahogany bar that once called Chicago home (before it landed in Essex, the bar did a tour at a speakeasy elsewhere in Illinois).
Back to those cocktails. Familiar libations get slight makeovers and new names inspired by local neighborhoods, hills and dales. A Cape Codder is rendered the Chalker Beach - an Old Saybrook shore community - thanks to a hearty dash of lime juice. A selection of many other cocktails, martinis, wines and beer (bottled and tap) can also fuel the thirsty diner.
Now, it's important to fully consider your options before you get to eating. The tempting selection of quesadillas and buffalo wing/sauce combos available (10 wings for $10.49 to start) might stop you before you get to the rest of the appetizer list. As easily tempted persons, we had to sample the basic buffalo-sauced wings (with much consideration given to the Parmesan garlic and Thai peanut sauces), and we can only marvel at the birds who produced them. Not only were the wings quite plump, the buffalo sauce was tasty to boot, offering just a hint of heat at the end of each bite.
BUT, if you can bypass the wings, may I hereby recommend the poutine ($8.99), a pile of thick-cut fries smothered in a masterful blend of cheeses. Think mac and cheese roux meets well-prepped fries. Most poutines come topped with gravy, but Oliver's preparation seemed to eschew that ingredient. Which was quite all right - the dish as it stood was entirely delightful.
In the meantime, bypass the beef barley soup ($3.59 for a cup), which appeared as a recent soup of the day. While it wasn't terrible, it was only memorable for how salty it was and how tough the cubes of beef within were. I've had better out of a can.
But redemption came in the form of the Memphis-style baby back ribs we ordered as a main plate ($16.99 for a half-rack, with coleslaw). Like the chicken wings, these ribs were generously proportioned and super tender, covered in a subtle, smoky sauce that was neither too tangy nor too sticky sweet. We thoroughly enjoyed this dish and felt we'd truly earned the resulting wet-nap cleanup.
I selected the Green Chile Burger ($11.49) as main plate #2. While I give the burger points for creative ingredients - smoked poblanos and pepper jack cheese as toppings - I could've dealt with a fresher bun that actually covered the burger and a less toothy patty. Still, the patty retained at least some moisture, and the toppings did a great job in saving this dish from complete mediocrity.
But then there's that redemption again, this time in the guise of the evening's dessert option called Cookie Dough Pie ($4.99). This very, very satisfying dish pairs a fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie base with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and some chocolate sauce. It was more divine than such a simple construction had any right to be.
Truly, it was the perfect end to an evening of comforts at ye olde watering hole.
124 Westbrook Road, Essex
Cuisine: Pub grub and other American fare
Atmosphere: Two floors of lofty eating and drinking space, with even more space carved out for bands and dancers. Casual.
Service: Courteous but a bit slow at times.
Prices: Moderate for apps (with an average price of $9); more pricey for burgers and entrees.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. weekends
Credit cards: Yes
Handicapped access: Ample seating in first-floor dining room; no stairs to get in.