Published January 30. 2014 4:00AM Updated January 30. 2014 2:13PM
At least two truths come to mind when the topic is downtown Mystic. There are as many better-than-average places to eat as there are beautiful views of the river. And to eat at most of them, you're going to pay a premium.
Anthony J's Bistro must be nearly the granddaddy of them all. This cozy and casual landmark is tucked in one of Holmes Street's few shady spots, very near the flagpole, right up tight to the sidewalk. Inside, it's just as tight. If there were 50 customers at any one time, the place would feel jam-packed.
This diminutive size, however, is perhaps one of the restaurant's finest assets. It's impossible not to have an intimate dining experience here. Windows line the front wall but otherwise, the lighting is dim. The two-top tables are not much bigger than a Monopoly board, so you can't help but be close to your dining companion. The dark wood and upholstery, the stone, all contribute to the atmosphere, that of a warm, welcoming grotto just to the side of Mystic's bustling retail center.
On a Thursday night visit for dinner, we began with drinks, generously poured and reasonably priced at $10 each. I chose AJ's Signature Martini, a tart and sweet lemony concoction that warmed me to my toes. The complimentary bread was among the most delicious I've tasted. Chunks of warm focaccia and slices from another warm, rustic loaf arrived with an olive oil dip that included whole garlic cloves and slices of sundried tomato. So good.
We sat at a table for two in one of the restaurant's front windows. I found it delightfully cozy, but for my 6-foot-5 husband, it was cramped.
We each ordered from the regular menu, with me choosing the Pear Salad ($10) and the braised lamb shank ($32), and he the Classic Wedge salad ($10) and the Spinach Stuffed Gnocci ($20).
The lamb was flavorful and succulent, served with a generous heap of mashed potatoes and fresh green beans. The gnocci were soft and cheesy, floating in a nice sauce of olive oil, broccoli rabe, sundried tomatoes and prosciutto. But where our entrees were good, our salads were amazing.
Mine featured perfectly ripe, thinly sliced pears radiating out from a very generous pile of fresh baby greens, creamy gorgonzola, toasty pecans and moist and chewy dried cranberries, topped with raspberry vinaigrette. My husband's featured cold, crispy iceberg wedges topped with plenty of smoky bacon, a just-right portion of thinly sliced red onion and rich blue cheese dressing. We each polished them off, using the bread to mop up every bit from the plate.
On our next visit, a Saturday lunch, we sat in the dining area behind the bar. A built-in wooden bench provided the seating for the tables on two sides of the room, and we chose one opposite the front windows. My husband ordered from the specials menu, crab bisque ($6 for a cup, $8 for a bowl) and a lobster BLT wrap ($19). I chose the Caesar salad ($10) and a cheddar burger ($10) from the regular menu.
The Caesar was another winner, featuring cold, crisp romaine, lots of Romano cheese, creamy garlic dressing and crunchy croutons. The burger was delicious, not intimidatingly large but at the same time generous. It was covered with melted cheddar and perfectly cooked as I had ordered. The ratio of meat to fresh, slightly sweet bun was right on, and it was served with a large dill pickle spear and a surprising delicious coleslaw featuring dried cranberries.
My husband's bisque was full of crab and also, unfortunately, some shell. He enjoyed the flavor, but I found the creamy broth a bit too salty. His wrap was a disappointment. Although the bacon was present, most of its components - the lobster, the lettuce, the winter tomato - simply didn't have any flavor. It was our most expensive choice and, unfortunately, our most inconsequential.
But we'll definitely return to Anthony J's. Next time, I'll order a drink and a salad, being sure to leave room for one of the beautiful desserts - perhaps tiramisu, crème brulee or cannoli - all of which are made on the premises.