The Blue Duck fits in NL downtown dining scene nicely
If you’re one of those folks like myself who has an ongoing and ever-changing list of Top 10 Bad People in literature, Blue Duck, the biracial Indian archfiend from Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Lonesome Dove,” is without question on it. At the moment, I currently have Blue Duck clumped with Aaron the Moor in “Titus Andronicus,” Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs,” Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes and Reggie in the Archie comic books series (the way he treats Jughead is unspeakable).
In this spirit, when the rumor first hit a year or so ago that an Americana bar/restaurant was going to open in New London called The Blue Duck, I thought, “This is perversely outstanding! Who in their right mind would name a restaurant after Blue Duck?”
My first clue that something was amiss occurred when I walked into the handsome space on Bank Street in the old Brass Rail location. On one wall, near the wooden deck overlooking the railroad tracks and, beyond, Waterfront Park and the Thames River, is a giant painted mural depicted a cartoon duck wearing large red sunglasses.
Huh? The image doesn’t remotely connotate a character who slaughtered his way across 900 pages of one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, and I said so to my wife Eileen.
She sighed. “You’re probably the only human on earth — including Larry McMurtry, if he was still alive — who wouldn’t realize THIS Blue Duck is an allusion to Adam Sandler in ‘Billy Madison.’”
Whatever the source for the Blue Duck reference, this is a pleasantly hip place that seems able to efficiently appeal to a broad cross-section of customers. You walk into the base of a U-shaped layout. To the right is a long narrow brick-walled dining room with a skylight and wooden tables, separated by a wall from a similarly shaped saloon area with a handsome bar running along the far wall in service to a length of aqua booths.
The overall feel is faux-industrial, with exposed ducts on the ceiling, brick or painted walls, spaceship-silver barstools, and designer lighting. The waitstaff is casually friendly and service is quick. Conversation with dining companions is easier at lunch; in the evening, the electronica/dance club is sufficiently loud to melt the ears off all three guitarists in Anthrax.
The menu is cleverly distinctive if limited. There’s a handful of options each under Starters, Plates, Soups & Salads and Handhelds. Standards include nachos, lobster bisque, fish & chips, a Cobb salad and a half-pound burger. Less familiar possibilities, for example, are a Nashville hot chicken sandwich, loaded smashed potato cakes and an Asian crunch salad.
As far as the bar is concerned, there’s a nicely curated selection of draft and craft beers, specialty drinks and wine.
Hits and misses
Eileen and I visited for lunch one day and dinner another and mostly enjoyed our experiences.
We split a giant fried pretzel ($12), which is served with Blue Duck lager beer cheese and honey mustard dips. The pretzel come hanging from a futuristic metal contraption, which was sorta cool until the pretzel broke, knocking over a beer can. This might have been because the pretzel was still frozen; our waitress quickly replaced it with a properly cooked one. It was chewy throughout — no crispy exterior, but particularly flavorful with the cheese dip.
I also explored the bisque ($8 for a generous bowl and delighted in a thick version with a nice sherry presence and plenty of lobster including a huge hunk plopped dead center as part of the presentation.
Also from the appetizers section — but selected by Eileen as entrees for lack of many vegetarian options — were falafel ($14) and, on the next visit, crispy Brussels sprouts ($12). The former comprised two sizeable chickpea patties with mixed greens and hot tahini sauce. As with the pretzel, the exterior wasn’t as crispy as anticipated, but they tasted good and the tart sauce was a pleasure. As per the menu description, they should have arrived with house-made kettle chips but, alas, they were nowhere to be seen.
The Brussels sprouts were popular. E ordered the Nashville Hot version (other sauces included a PB&J variety and a maple/cinnamon blend. The Ducksters do not skimp on the sprouts--the basket was filled. All were coated in a piquant-but-not-brutally-hot sauce and the uniform size of the sprouts ensured all were cooked through consistently and very easy to pop into one’s mouth.
The Asian crunch salad ($12) promised romaine, shredded carrots, red bell peppers, mandarin, sesame, scallions, roasted peanuts, cabbage, crispy wontons, honey-garlic & white balsamic vinaigrette (add chicken for $2.50). It was a pleasing concoction though, again, elements were missing: carrots, scallions and wontons. Perhaps they tried to make up for those items with green and yellow bell peppers, but the "Asian" and "Crunch" in the name of the dish didn't really materialize.
I particularly enjoyed the Birria tacos plate ($16), which includes three fresh corn tortillas packed with shreds of beef slow-roasted with chili and herbs, a Monterrey & mozzarella cheese blend, a hooky pico de gallo and, most intriguingly, a discernible and successful consommé presence.
I also liked, on my second visit, a Cubano sandwich ($15). Slices of pork had a very singular flavor — is it possible there was also consommé involved? — and melded wonderfully with very sweet ham and Swiss cheese. The Ciabatta roll was fresh and capably held the components together, and a batch of shoestringy French fries were the perfect side.
We’ll visit Blue Duck again — I can now admit the “Lonesome Dove” theme wouldn’t have worked — and, from the crowds on our visits, I suspect this is already going to be a very popular part of the New London hospitality scene.
The Blue Duck Bar & Kitchen
52 Bank St., New London
www.theblueducknl.com, (860) 446-6824
Cuisine: Small but creative menu fusing Americana tavern classics with some inspiring original ideas
Atmosphere: Clean lines, industrial components, colorful and a large blue duck painting that has nothing to do with “Lonesome Dove.” Music at night is very loud — and this is coming from a man who once sat 15 yards away from Kerry King’s rig at a Slayer concert.
Service: Very attentive even on a crowded night. Food and drinks are delivered quickly and a frozen pretzel was replaced with grace and at top speed.
Reservations: It can get crowded on weekend nights
Prices: Moderate and competitive with higher-end tavern food
Handicap access: A step up is required for restrooms, but restaurant entrance is street level
Credit cards: Yes