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The emperor Constantine ruled Rome from 306 to 337 A.D. His palace, which has housed a variety of restaurants through modern times, still stands in what is now known as Niantic Village in the community of East Lyme, Connecticut, USA.
Known for years as Constantine's, the spot was rechristened the Main Street Grille under owner/chef Frank Grace, who ran the outfit adroitly. We've been quasi-regulars for a long while.
It was a bit of a surprise, then, when alert Food Heads started contacting me and saying a new ownership group had taken over the Grille - and, indeed, it's true. A gentleman named Teddy Ignatiadis is now in charge.
Of course, we had to check it out.
On each of two recent visits, we were greeted by enthusiastic and new staffers. One Sunday, we were presented with a brand new Sunday Brunch menu. On a weekday night, the host said, "Here's our new dinner menu."
It's also true that, over the course of those repasts, we saw some familiar folks behind the bar and in and out of the kitchen.
The brunch menu offers staples from both the breakfast and lunch sides of the equation - ranging from French toast, crepes and sausage/bacon/hash/eggs extravaganzas to grilled chicken ciabatta, a lobster BLT and a crabcake Caesar salad. All of these are fun, naturally, but two dishes immediately grabbed my attention. Shrimp & Grits ($12) advertised cheddar Jack cheese grits with jumbo shrimp, peppers and chorizo. And a Waffle Reuben ($12), which astoundingly pairs corned beef, Swiss, sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing on a breakfast waffle sprinkled lightly with powdered sugar and anchored on the plate next to a container of warm maple syrup.
Folks from the South are familiar with a similar and seemingly incongruous concept - fried chicken with waffles. An acquired taste? Yes - but it's actually pretty good.
In that spirit, I went with the Waffle Reuben - and I'm still not sure what I think. The components were all excellently prepared, particularly the hunks of lean, flavor-happy beef and piquant, fresh kraut. My immediate instinct, as a representative amalgam hit my taste bud, was that it was odd and interesting but probably didn't work.
And yet ... I couldn't stop playing with the whole thing - adding more or less syrup or none at all, or staggering ingredients by eating a bite of waffle and then adding beef and cheese. I had great fun with it, and I might do it again. Or I might not. But I had no problem wolfing it all down. Kudos for the creative effort.
My wife, who's somewhat adamant in her vegetarianism, tried a spinach and artichoke omelette ($8). She was most impressed by the freshness of the spinach. There was an abundance of veggies in the construct, and the eggs were properly fluffy. It was served with a side of sliced fruit.
From the start-the-day-off-cheerily selection of cocktails - which included espresso, capuccino, latte, Mimosas and Bellinis - a Bloody Mary ($7) was heady, spicy and vibrant.
On our evening trip, the menu was largely familiar to the earlier Main Street exercise, but that's okay. After all, broken into sections like Starters, Land, Sea, Pasta, Comfort, Sandwiches and Burgers, and with representative selections in each, it's a large and all-appetites survey.
As an appetizer, we split an order of cheese quesadillas ($7), which comes with salsa, scallions, black olives, sour cream, guacamole and Cheddar Jack cheese. I'd hoped for a heaping version; instead, the guac, cream and salsa came in separate containers, and there were just a few diced olives sprinkled randomly over the surface of the quesadillas.
A cup of lobster bisque ($5) was rich with a parfum of sherry and included savory hunks of lobster meat. Nice.
I asked that my Veal Scallopini Marsala ($20) come with no mushrooms, which is probably a violation of some SALT Talk-type culinary agreement. But four palm-sized slices of fork-tender veal, veiled with spinach leaves and resting in a delicate wine sauce, was a pleasant and filling selection. It came with a choice of two vegetables. My rice pilaf was fluffy and had a slightly nutty flavor, and French fries - another goofy choice - were great fun when swabbed through the Marsala sauce.
My wife tried the macaroni & cheese entree ($11) and was rewarded with a huge serving of ziti in "yummy" cheese sauce topped with butter-flecked, herbed bread crumbs. She loved it and was happy at the prospect of leftovers. This was served with a side salad - another sizable effort with mixed greens, croutons, cucumbers, tomato, red onion and carrots. The basalmic dressing was thick and a perfect accompaniment.
This latest incarnation of restaurant hospitality to occupy the iconic Constantine building is a welcome addition to the Village.
252 Main St., Niantic
(860) 739-5300, mainstreetgrilleniantic.com
Cuisine: Eager-to-please variety of regional and basic American classics and comfort foods.
Atmosphere: Prime Village location. On one side of the restaurant, you see picturesque Main Street; to the rear, the Bay (including an outdoor, upstairs deck).
Service: A mix of old and new staffers. Folks are happy to see you, though at peak hours there can be a bit of a delay getting your order in. Once that happens, though, it's quick and efficient.
Prices: Sunday brunch entrees $7-$15; dinner: soups, salads and appetizers $3-$12; sandwiches and burgers $9-$16; entrees $11-$30 (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