The Day dining critics on the favorite venues they've reviewed in 2018
The Bayou BBQ & Grill
221 Shaw St., New London
Brian Brother has been an on-again/off-again presence on the New London dining scene for decades. He's dropping anchor — for the last time, he promises — at the Bayou, which is the same spot where he successfully ran the Raiders Roost for years.
In his absences, Brother has been expanding his culinary toolkit, learning new things and similarly satisfying a Traveling Jones. The Bayou is the impressive culmination of all of Brother's experiences. His menu offers a Holy Trinity of cuisines typically associated with the south: Tex-Mex, barbecue and Cajun/Creole. When working your way through the Bayou offerings, it's basically hard to go wrong.
Favorites include the Chimilada ($10.95 lunch, $14.95 dinner), which is a gargantuan fusion of a chimichanga and an enchilada. A crisply-rendered flour tortilla is stuffed with beans and rice and the diner's choice of root vegetables, shrimp, pork, or chicken; and the BBQ Platter ($19.95), which combines tangy pulled pork, toothsome smoked sausage, and lean, hickory-esque pork ribs lightly coated with a playful and tomato-happy sauce.
But I keep gravitating to the Cajun stuff if only because it's REALLY hard to find up here. Brother's dark-roux Chicken and Sausage Gumbo ($4 cup, $6 bowl) is as authentic as you're gonna run across, and bless him for that. Ditto on the Roast Beef Po' Boy, which features slow-cooked slabs of lucious beef nestled in a fresh, chewy roll — and kissed by not just lettuce, tomato and mayo but also a wondrous, NOLA-style debris gravy forged. All hail!
— Rick Koster
Woodfellas Wood-Fired Pizza & Wings
The Velvet Mill, 22 Bayview Ave., Stonington
These days a lot of people don't eat carbs, or if they do, only occasionally. So here's a tip for those looking for a good reason to break their carbohydrate fast: Woodfellas.
This pizza and wings place in Stonington's Velvet Mill opened last spring and has been a big hit ever since.
It's mostly take-out food, but there are tables, and they have an agreement with the adjacent Beer'd Brewing for Beer'd customers to bring their Woodfellas' chow to consume at the brewery.
The pizza is worth breaking a carb fast for. It's cooked on a wood-fired oven, and the dough is made with beer, from Beer'd, of course. There are red-sauce and white pies, and the toppings, well, there's all kinds of choices, from baby spinach and sausage, to bacon and feta, pepperoni and meatball, broccoli and chicken, ricotta, onions, bacon, fresh basil, olives, and Thai peanut sauce. And that's just a few.
They have three salads — a garlic-laden Love Salad with iceberg, Genoa, Provolone and tomatoes, as well as a spinach and gorgonzola salad and a house salad.
For those who really don't want to go the carb route, the chicken wings at Woodfellas come boneless or bone-in, and in a variety of flavors and sizes. Standard orders offer as few as six or as many as 36.
Food is fairly priced at Woodfellas — not a single item exceeds $15 — and the success of the eatery is evidenced by the repeat customers who come back time and time again.
— Ann Baldelli
5 Water St., Mystic
Food Network crowned Sift a national treasure this summer, and if that isn't enough to get you in the door, take a stroll by this excellent bakery in Mystic and view the bounty on display and see if you can keep walking.
The large chocolate croissant ($3.25) caught my eye the first time I visited Sift, and it guaranteed my return to the bakery for years to come. The buttery pastry gets the ultimate flavor anchor in excellent and abundant chocolate throughout. It's big enough to share, but why would you? Although sharing would be just fine if you paired it with an equally well-thought-out almond croissant ($3.50 and filled with light-as-a-feather almond cream).
And yet, there are savories that shouldn't be missed at Sift, and if you try nothing else, consider the Sausage, Potato, and Cheese Croissant ($3.50). It is a delicious combination of crumbly, seasoned sausage, flavorful mashed potato, and cheese on yet another incarnation of excellent croissant. Omelettes are also available, and they are hearty and delicious.
Then there's the rainbow of macarons on display ... and the boutique cake slices (Blueberry Violet Cheesecake, anyone?) ... and the beautiful loaves of bread to consider. Sift is filled with those wonders and more. This bakery has earned its national title and all the local accolades you're likely to hear in town. Check it out, and start a list of what you want to try next.
— Marisa Nadolny
Scotch Plains Tavern
124 Westbrook Road, Essex
(860) 662-4032, scotchplainstavern.com
This Essex establishment is a dazzling and welcome destination that can satisfy in an "elegant night out" or "comfy place to watch a game" capacity. It's huge, for one thing, and beautifully designed and furnished. Old-timers remember this building as the two-story Oliver's Taverne, and the Scotch Plains folks have done a sterling job renovating and reimagining the place.
On our visit, we ate in the dining room and enjoyed a meal with two friends. The food presentation and service were exemplary. Appetizers to remember included cheese curds ($14) and fried green tomatoes ($13). Though lovely dishes to look at, and enjoyable in general, the grilled Atlantic salmon and a 14-ounce ribeye were a bit bland. But: The wild mushroom risotto ($19), with a woodsy, earthy presence nuanced by a creamy, buttery rice base and expertly cooked pasta, was a true winner. Too, a pan-seared fillet of trout ($24), in a luxuriant white wine/citrus sauce, was delightful.
All of the steamed vegetable sides were fresh and tasty, and a chocolate layer cake ($8) was rich and seductive and fed the four of us with ease.
— Rick Koster
Shayna B's By the Sea
247 Main St., Old Saybrook
If you know me at all, you know I've got a sweet tooth that will easily rule in favor of ice cream for dinner. I'm aware of ideal nutritional intake for humans of a certain age, but life's too short to pass up a gorgeous chocolate cupcake.
And so, when I discover a vegan bakery that takes some of the bite, so to speak, out of traditionally fatty treats, I'm happy to compromise and eschew animal products. And if the bakery is doing it right, like they are at Shayna B's By the Sea in Old Saybrook, you'll never miss the butter, milk or eggs. The sweet treats, from the cinnamon rolls ($3.25) to the aforementioned cupcake $5) compete with any of their non-vegan counterparts I've tasted in recent months and rate a very good in my book.
And yet, should you prefer a proper meal before your dessert, Shayna B can help with a loaded menu of delicious soups, wraps, noodle bowls and more. Any of the non-dessert items will land you in good nutritional standing, thanks to loads of veggies, plant-based protein, and other creative culinary combinations. If you see the Moroccan Lentil Stew on the menu anytime soon, grab a bowl and enjoy its savory silkiness as you peruse the dessert display case. Best of both worlds? Yes, please.
— Marisa Nadolny