Aspen: Substance And Style In Old Saybrook

Under the aegis of entrepreneur and investor Charles Spathakis (formerly of Mystic Market), chef David Borselle, a Connecticut native, and his team have in a matter of weeks turned Old Saybrook's newest restaurant, Aspen, into one of the region's most promising culinary ventures.

The restaurant, which opened in December, has been tucked into the ground and basement levels of a big, new barn-like structure where Main Street and Route 1 meet. It is decorated in warm tones and dark woodwork, with pinpoint lighting that flatters the diverse crowd.

Like nearly all of Aspen's competition, a big bar stands front and center. There is a small lounge nearby; the balance of the space has been broken into smaller areas providing diners a certain intimacy. Stylized leaves float on glass partitions, reinforcing the arboreal theme.

The dinner menu is divided into three sections: soups and salads, “small plates,” and “main plates” (the tapafication of Connecticut continues). Offerings range from the mundane (fried calamari with peppers) to the unusual (braised squab with Hollandaise sauce and truffle oil). Small plates are available in the lounge. At lunch, dinner menu highlights reappear along with sandwiches, salads, and burgers.

In a characteristic touch, the logical array of meat, fish, and vegetarian dishes is accompanied by helpful suggestions of wine by the glass, all $15 or under. The larger wine list is pretty comprehensive; most bottles fall between $40 and $80. I enjoyed a good glass of house Pinot Noir. My partner knocked back his creditable martini.

As promised on the Web site, international touches inform a few of the dishes. To wit: “Asian slaw” and wasabi sauce inform Aspen's crabcakes. Cheeseburgers can be topped with sharp gruyère or gorgonzola, along with the usual cheddar cheese. Grilled prawns are teamed with blood orange vinaigrette.

Cream of chicken with asparagus soup and vegetable lo mein were the specials on the night of our visit.

Presentations can be artful. Our robust salad of diced roasted yellow and red beets arrived like a gorgeous summery bouquet, surrounded by colorful speckles of beet coulis. Fortunately, it tasted even better, the beets married perfectly to discs of goat cheese and arugula, their texture complemented by a crisp pistachio crostini.

Oysters Rockefeller, once ubiquitous, seem to have lost favor in the rage for raw seafood. It was nice, then, to see them at Aspen, “deconstructed” in this case, six plump oysters removed from their shells and served on a bed of peppery watercress. They were lightly sauced with Pernod-infused cream, and garnished with slivers of smoked bacon. A sprinkling of sharp gruyere finished this eminent indulgence.

Four thin slices of nicely charred “All Natural” (what does this mean? organic?) steak were served with the aforementioned Asian slaw and a sweet and tart spicy plum sauce. The lean beef was cooked to order and full of flavor, and we were grateful for what amounted to little more than a taste for two (small plate portions tend to be precisely that).

With cod in decline we shouldn't have ordered the “Butter Basted Cod Loin” that beckoned from the list of main courses. But we did. The lightly breaded filet was just cooked through, and served atop a bed of braised sweet potato and red onion. The onion and the red wine reduction lent a rich, sweet, and smoky essence to the cod.

To flesh out one's meal Aspen offers such side dishes as sautéed beet greens and Yukon Gold potato gnocchi. Our order of grilled asparagus arrived well charred if still quite crisp, and it was lightly enrobed with a beautifully prepared, lemony Hollandaise (the caramelized asparagus a refreshing change).

Thin slices of delicious baguette accompanied the meal. Butter replaced the usual ritual bath of olive oil.

The only dessert that compelled us enough to order was a “beggars purse,” diced apples and pears, bound in a few layers of phyllo that were baked crisp, and surrounded with a tart cranberry coulis and a sprinkling of caramelized pecans. It was not overwhelmingly sugary, the absolute curse of most American desserts.

Other desserts include crème brulée, warm chocolate soufflé, cheesecake, and a variety of gelati and sorbet. All are under $8, and are prepared by Aspen's pastry chef. A few ports are also offered with the dessert selections.

From the warm greeting at the door to coffee, the service was without flaw. Our well trained server was informed about the menu and perfectly willing to offer quick refills of water and bread. Silverware was replaced without the need to ask.

My only complaint, and it's a small one, is that Aspen doesn't stray far from a predictable array of old standbys. I wish they'd dynamite things like crème brulee and fried calamari from the menu in preference for less hackneyed recipes. When Aspen secures its footing, or more to the point, a loyal clientele, perhaps the chef can throw caution to the wind and experiment. There seems little question his team is up to it.

If you need to be astonished, steer clear of Aspen. There's nothing flashy about it. Spathakis and his team are content to serve fresh food proficiently prepared, full of flavor, and delivered without the slightest attitude. So far, it fits like a glove.
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