Staff Favorites of 2014: Restaurants

“Staff Favorites of 2014” lists: The Day’s features staff’s favorite releases, programs, events and other moments in the arts and entertainment world. As we can’t possibly listen to/see/read/experience everything, we can only call these selections “favorites.” Here, The Day’s restaurant reviewers offer their favorite eateries discovered in 2014.

Hot Rods

114 Bank St., New London 

(860) 447-2320 

hotrodscafenewlondon.com 

So many restaurants suffer from an identity crisis, often doing a lot of things but none of them well. Not Hot Rods, where Rod Cornish stakes his reputation on wings, beer and atmosphere. And in a city where restaurants can struggle, Hot Rods is often jammed. Of the 20 kinds of wings, my favorite is the Mango Habanero, a nice mix of hot and sweet. If you like them spicier, there’s 24 draught beers to choose from to help dull the heat. If wings aren’t your thing, there are also burgers and chicken sandwiches and nightly dinner specials. In the warm weather, the deck overlooking the Thames is an awesome spot. This time of year, it’s a great choice to watch the game or listen to some music. 

— Tim Cotter 

Langley’s Restaurant 

Great Neck Country Club 

28 Lamphere Road, Waterford 

(860) 443-6864 

greatneckgolf.com 

Every year I seem to discover great food at a golf course, and this year it was Langley’s. A public restaurant at a private golf course, Langley’s might be easy to overlook. But that’s a mistake. Langley’s is an incredibly comfortable spot with excellent food beautifully presented. I still remember the black bean, andouille sausage soup, Salmon Thermador, and the chocolate cake with a chocolate truffle. And every meal starts with an impressive basket of bread. 

— Tim Cotter 

Vetrano’s Restaurant 

130 Granite St., Westerly 

(401) 348-5050 

vetranosrestaurant.com 

It’s hard not to overeat at Vetrano’s as the food (and wine) just seems to keep coming and coming. Vetrano’s nails classic Italian offerings such as antipasto, pasta fagioli, lasagna and cannolis. A typical dish would be La Paesana — a delicious mix of sauteed sausage, onions and peppers in a light marinara served over your choice of pasta. New in 2014 is a black walnut bar where you can enjoy a glass of vino while waiting for a table. 

Vetrano’s was my rediscovery of the year and I can’t wait to go back in 2015.

— Tim Cotter 

Crown Chicken & Grill

922 Bank St., New London 

(860) 437-1555 

It’s not much on atmosphere — yes, the structure looks familiar because originally it was a KFC franchise — but there is much greatness at Crown. The fried chicken is indeed pretty excellent — certainly in an area where our only other option is the admittedly fun Popeye’s — but the magical menu item that captured my heart and stomach is the shrimp cheesesteak grinder ($9.99). I actually ordered this sandwich thinking it would just be fried shrimp — like a crustacean-y version of a traditional Philly cheesesteak. But, oh, Lord! No, it’s shrimp AND steak, both heaped on a soft grinder roll under a comforting blanket of tangy melted cheese. The shaved steak is lean and tasty, and the contrasting pop of the medium shrimp in each bite is the soundtrack to a wonderful co-mingling of flavors. 

— Rick Koster 

Olio Restaurant & Bar 

33 Kings Highway, Groton

(860) 445-6546 

www.olioct.com/olio 

After 14 years, this local landmark never fails to impress with its consistently creative, new American cuisine. At night, the dining room feels very small as it sparkles with candlelight, creating a bustling, urban bistro vibe. During the day, natural light pours in through the south-facing windows, making the place feel open and bright. The large, regular menu is accompanied daily by a robust selection of specials, from salads and pastas to seafood and meats, which seem to celebrate the fresh ingredients available that day. 

Olio is an old faithful, one I look forward to visiting time and time again. 

— Jill Blanchette 

Beirut’s Food Palace 

754 Long Hill Road, in the Groton Shopping Plaza 

(860) 440-8178 

www.facebook.com/BeirutsFoodPalace 

If you have a hankering for falafel, you need go no further than Beirut — Beirut’s Food Palace in Groton, that is. 

This no-frills, mom-and-pop Mediterranean diner prepares a fine falafel, darkly fried and nicely textured, from a menu that also includes shawarma, stuffed grape leaves, eggplant Parmesan and lamb and beef donair, traditionally prepared on vertical spit, sliced thin and served on pita bread. Beirut’s sandwiches — chicken and falafel is my favorite — are wrapped in thin, fresh pita and feature an array of pickles, some salty, some tangy, and a luscious, rich, nutty tahini sauce. 

The baba ghanouj is tangy and smoky. The labneh — yogurt cheese — is perfectly tart and creamy, and the Lebanese-style tabbouleh, green with finely chopped herbs, is a revelation.

— Jill Blanchette 

Paesano’s Pizza Bar & Bistro 

929 Bank St., New London 

(860) 447-9390 

http://paesanosbarandbistro.com

Located on the Waterford/New London line, it’s one of those iconic, will-always-be-a-restaurant locations. First it was Harrington’s Pub, then Illiano’s and then, earlier this year, the Illiano folks reconceptualized the spot and re-opened as Paesan’s Pizza Bar & Bistro. The main dining room has undergone a more modern, sleeker look with a full bar, a few craft beers on tap and, of course, the must-have big-screen televisions for sportage. Most of the same great Illiano’s menu is available, but bar foods such as the meatball sliders ($5) and the Cobb salad ($9) and a new item called Gnocci alla Sorentina ($12) with the dumplings tossed in a wonderful, cheesy sauce are very worth the visit. 

— Rick Koster

Harbour House Restaurant at the Inn at Mystic 

3 Williams Ave., Mystic 

(860) 536-9604 

www.innatmystic.com 

If you haven’t been yet to this reincarnation of the former Flood Tide, what are you waiting for?

The new owners have managed to keep what was memorable about the old place — the casual, elegant atmosphere and the commitment to great food and service — while adding a menu that celebrates fresh, local seafood in innovative and affordable ways. 

How can you not order a flatbread topped with Alfredo sauce, Stonington scallops and asiago and parmigiano reggiano cheeses? Or the Flood Tide crepes, filled with sweet, fresh lobster, swimming in an intoxicating Madeira cream sauce? Or perhaps those same Stonington scallops wrapped in bacon and bathed in a pomegranate glaze? 

If you want a traditional entree, they’ve got those, too, from a gorgonzola-crusted filet to charcoal broiled duck and an array of pastas and seafood. 

Harbour House has really raised the bar when it comes to pleasing its diverse clientele — from hotel guests to the local, happy hour crowd — and they seem to have done it while keeping a respectful eye on the past. 

— Jill Blanchette

Otto Pizza 

69 Main St., Chester 

(860) 526-9445 

www.ottochester.com 

I’ve made no secret of my pizza snobbery. If if ain’t out of NYC or New Haven, I don’t expect greatness in any pie. Thanks to Otto in Chester — situated in a former art gallery space — we can add another pizzeria to the list of those that pass muster elsewhere in Connecticut. 

You could grab a basic margherita pie, of course, and it’ll be delicious, but consider some of the other options on the daily menus of red and white pizzas: egg, pancetta, potato, ricotta and thyme; sausage, caramelized onions, peppers, scallions and ricotta; pepperoni with fresh mozzarella, calabrian chilis, rosemary and garlic. You get the idea. These are pies made to marry happily with their (often seasonal) toppings. These are creations by people who dig food. These are edible works of art with perfect crust — crisp, then a little chewy.

It’s quite fun to dine in and watch the pizza-makers at work in the open kitchen, but take-out is available, too. Make sure to try one of the terrific salads, too. 

— Marisa Nadolny 

Bluehound Cookery 

107 Main St., Ivoryton 

(860) 767-0260 

bluehoundcookery.com 

Whether you go to Bluehound Cookery for Southern-inspired nibbles or a full meal, you will exit the place greatly satisfied — possibly euphoric. Those heading in for a quick bite before a show at the Ivoryton Playhouse — which is right across the street — should try the fried-green tomatoes, red beans and rice, and the black bean soup. If you plan to tuck in for the long haul, please, please try the Voodoo Shrimp — done up in Abita brown ale barbecue sauce — or the fried chicken, which comes packaged with pancetta and a white cheddar sauce plus crunchy coating. Past experience makes me suspect just about anything on the menu is going to be great. (I technically don’t like jambalaya, but I loved Blue Hound’s.) Add in the super-pleasant staff and adorable ambience, and you’ve got a destination in Connecticut’s lovely river valley. 

— Marisa Nadolny

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