Longtime favorite Charlie's Place has added greatness with new chef
Charlie's Place in Niantic is a well-established, comfy restaurant/lounge with a slew of longtime regulars, and it prides itself on "having an extensive menu so that whatever your taste, you'll have no trouble finding something you like."
That assertion, clearly posted on the Charlie's Place website, conjures visions of a menu that looks like an age-old grimoire, something transcribed, perhaps, by a secret and furtive order of well-fed monks who, over centuries, catalogued secret and excellent representative dishes from across the continents.
To actually read the small type on Charlie's menu, one sees that's not much of an exaggeration. There IS a helluva lot to choose from.
But wait! Let's throw Niantic native Pete Daversa into this "lots of food" dynamic. Some months back, Daversa became the executive chef and pitmaster at Charlie's — and those of you familiar with the term "pitmaster" realize its implications: barbecue!
Yes, Daversa, who learned the lore and arcane rites of barbecue at well-established Manhattan restaurants like Danny Meyer's Blue Smoke and Hill Country — not to mention an acolyte's stints at the immortal Kreutz Market in the actual Texas Hill Country (and globally acknowledged as one of the absolute best barbecue joints ever) — has in fact expanded Charlie's menu. It now includes savory and marvelously smoked brisket, pulled pork, chicken and ribs, as well as requisite sides like mac 'n' cheese, collard greens, pit beans, and bourbon sweet mash potatoes.
It all seemed a perfect opportunity for my wife Eileen and me to see what Charlie and Pete have to offer. Eileen, known throughout the ages as The Vegetarian Who Walks Among Us (TVWWAU), clearly wouldn't go near the new barbecue offerings — and just as clearly there was no way I'd try anything BUT barbecue.
What you should also know is that Charlie's is an instantly convivial place. As you walk in the main entrance, there's a diner-style counter dead-ahead where you can sit and watch Daversa and his estimable staff work in the kitchen. To the left is a long, perpendicular dining room with a high, vaulted ceiling and, at one end, a vast triptych of windows letting in plenty of natural light. If you turn right from the main entrance, you enter the narrow lounge area and its J-shaped bar: Plenty of draft beer options, a few suspended screens for watching sports, and also some high-top tables for groups of diners who like to be up close and personal to their cocktails.
Basically, you can't lose in any of these scenarios as, on our two visits, servers, staff and bartenders were contagiously happy and welcoming. As for the food, here are some high points to consider the next time you're at Charlie's and decide to read "Infinite Jest" — er, I mean the menu.
• Pulled pork, egg and cheese sandwich ($7.95) — If the wife sleeps in on a rainy Sunday, heading to Charlie's for this breakfast bomb is a fine thing. The bun is heaped with thick shreds of tangy, Carolina-style hog, and the confluence of melted cheese and a fried egg = greatness. The grilled hard roll is more than sturdy enough to keep it all anchored.
• Score big points by bringing Sleeping Beauty a wake-up spinach omelette ($8.20) — three cloud-light eggs filled and oozing with a perfect balance of soothing cheddar and fresh chopped spinach. It comes with a side of seasoned, breakfast-y potatoes that weren't the normal cubes associated with home fries but rather a combo of home fries and hash browns. Delightfully crisped and chewy.
• Mozzarella sticks ($8.95) — Is there a more routine appetizer in the world? Still, there's a reason everyone not named Tom Brady eats them regularly. Perhaps this batch was too perfectly uniform to be homemade, but they were still quite good. The exterior breading was crisper than normal and the house marinara was a fine and tart counterpart to the mellow Mozz.
• Sesame Crusted Ahi Tuna ($13.95) — Five generous beams of fresh fish — with a toasty lacquer of seeds and wriggles of sinus-clearing wasabi — radiated like a starfish atop greens and brittle Asian noodles. Toasted slivers of onion were sprinkled throughout, and the whole effect was as though your tongue solved a Rubik's cube of flavors.
• Eggplant Parmesan ($16.95) — I'll let TVWWAU speak for herself: "Truly one of the best versions of this I've had. The eggplant was super tender, the linguini al dente, and the marinara rich and smoky. I don't say this lightly." Well, hell, then.
• Black bean/avocado quesadilla ($11.95) — Truth told, this was filed under "appetizer," but Eileen decided to make it a full meal. Good call! These weren't the usual pressed-flat, uninteresting quesadillas but instead bulky and packed with a toothsome combo of chewy black beans, fresh corn and zingy peppers, cheese and lumps of smooth avocado.
• Texas brisket ($16.95) — Pitmaster Pete, in true Texas fashion, perfers to serve a combination of lean and moist slices (the latter infused with flavorful fat). I'm not big on fat, but the chef was happy to oblige with lean-only. Beautiful stuff: a subtle smoke presence, fork-tender and beautifully grained; and with a peppery rub providing contrast on the ridge of the meat. The house sauce has an almost gingery quality that provides sparkle and never overwhelms.
• St. Louis ribs ($10.95 1/3 rack, $16.95 half rack, $25.95 full rack) — Typically thicker and with more fat than baby backs, St. Louis ribs are also generally more tender. These were very good. Again, the rub serves as a piquant part of the overall puzzle, providing a nice brittle bite and happily comingling with smoke to nuance the pork flavor.
Sides — each BBQ plate comes with two sides and two tiny, sweet cornbread muffins. I particularly like the tart but sweet collard greens with diced brisket and a macaroni and cheese recipe so rich that it will get huge cuts from the Trump tax plan.
It's going to be fun and interesting to see how Daversa further experiments with barbecue and how it might affect the overall extensive menu. I don't at all regard this as a dilemma but instead something to look forward to greatly.
26 West Main St., Niantic
(860) 739-2975, charliesplacerestaurant.com
Cuisine: Extremely ambitious, well prepared and wide-ranging menu with recent focus on damned good barbecue
Atmosphere: Longtime hangout for Niantic residents, with family-friendly dining room and a cozy lounge
Service: Efficient, friendly, folksy
Prices: Moderate and reasonable for large amounts of food
Hours: 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri. and Sat., 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun.
Handicap access: Wheelchair ramp, steps down to spacious dining room
Reservations: Not a bad plan for large parties at peak hours
Credit cards: All major
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