At Niantic's Black Sheep, stick with traditional fare

As the idiom goes, there is a black sheep in every flock — but only one such restaurant carrying that moniker in Niantic.

Boasting a dim-lit, cozy atmosphere, with hardwood floors, a mahogany bar, original tin ceiling, fire place and tables positioned into private nooks here and there, The Black Sheep on Main Street is a fun and relaxed spot with entertainment ranging from widescreen TVs broadcasting live sports to musical acts to trivia night and karaoke.

The bar advertises 15 beers on tap among an impressive list of brews and wines. On the food side of things, it can be somewhat of a mixed bag, with a list of traditional Irish pub items that satisfy and some more unconventional fare that strives for greatness but sometimes misses the mark.

On my recent visit, I had some trouble making up my mind when perusing the appetizers list on the lunch menu. The problem was twofold: the options either looked tempting but didn't pair well with the main courses, or they were aiming for some kind of gastronomic uniqueness to the point of being too much for my taste.

For example, the possibility of following up a starter of crispy fried dumplings and ginger soy dipping sauce ($10) with bangers and mash ($15) for my main course didn't exactly excite me. And grilled quesadilla with pico de gallo and sour cream didn't exactly scream "eat me with meat loaf and Irish cheddar cheese, or a baked sea scallop casserole."

On the "too much" side of things, there was the fried calamari ($12) served with citrus Sriracha aioli and crispy wonton strips for $12 (to be fair, you could get a somewhat more standard version with sweet and hot pepper relish and marinara), and Black Sheep poutine with fries, gravy, and Swiss cheese ($7; plus $3 to add corned beef).

I decided to try the plate of house fried potato chips ($10) that comes with one of two options: topped with buffalo sauce, blue cheese, and scallions; or roasted garlic cream, scallions, and Cashel blue cheese.

I'm not much of buffalo sauce guy, so I went with the garlic cream style. The chips in this dish were delicious — fresh cut, fried to a nice crisp, and salted just right. But the toppings were overwhelming, and it didn't help that they were applied so liberally.

The cream sauce was flavorful but had an odd gloppy consistency. The cheese was of a good quality but there were too many large chunks of it in there. I found myself torn between scraping off some of the toppings to make the dish less "intense" and leaving it on so as not to waste the ingredients.

I'd say, though, that I have some degree of understanding. In visits to other British/Irish pubs in recent years I've noticed there seems to be a gradual trend or pressure to push the menu in a more "wow factor" direction, with more out-there combos that catch the patron's attention. And, perhaps, while chips with squirts of cream and chunks of blue cheese maybe aren't my thing, they could be someone else's thing. At the same time, I have to imagine there are other traditionalists out there that would appreciate simple, well-crafted standards.

On the bright side, the clam chowder ($6) I ordered was excellent. It was nice and thick, with hearty chunks of potato, generous amounts of clam, and savory bits of bacon. Along with a beef stew ($6) offered on the lunch special menu, this option, to me, did a much better job meeting one's expectations of a classic Irish haunt.

I'm also happy to report that the main menu courses — with options like shepherd's pie ($15); the house burger with Irish bacon, caramelized onion, and smoked maple cheddar; and a baked sea scallops casserole — were much more rewarding.

The fish and chips plate ($14) comes with ale battered Atlantic cod, crispy on the outside and moist and flaky on the inside, excellent house made tartar sauce, and delicious coleslaw over greens. The accompanying fries were also excellent: a cross between the Wendy's and Burger King varieties circa 2003 (for anyone who remembers the glory days of fast food fries), dusted with and Old Bay style seasoning.

The lump crab cakes ($16) come with a spicy and fresh Cajun remoulade sauce, and a well-paired side of peas and herbed rice. The cake itself is plump, well seasoned, nicely fried, and more on the breading-heavy side.

The traditional shepherd's pie ($15) consisted of a bottom layer of savory ground beef mixed with peas and carrots and topped with fluffy whipped potatoes and a cheddar cheese crust.

On the logistical side of things, parking at Black Sheep is ample, from on-street spots to lots close by, and there is outdoor seating for warmer months (although I did see a few hardy souls enjoying a drink outside on my recent visit).

The service I received was also commendable: upbeat, friendly, prompt, and accommodating.

Overall, I'd say, if you pick the right menu item, Black Sheep is a worthy restaurant with a lot to offer in terms of atmosphere and other entertainment perks. And, despite my early garlic cream sauce misadventure, my experience was a positive one.

If you go

The Black Sheep

247 Main St., Niantic

(860) 739-2041, theblacksheepniantic.com

Food type: Irish pub fare

Service: Friendly, quick and accommodating

Price: Inexpensive to moderate

Hours: Restaurant: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday; bar: open until last call (1 a.m. Sunday-Thursday, 2 a.m. Friday-Saturday)

Credit cards: all majors

Handicapped access:

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