The Dog Watch Mystic is a fine offshoot from Stonington original

When visitors come from out of town, my wife Eileen and I have a reliable index of "must share" area restaurants we like to show off. I'm surprised at how many of our friends and relatives haven't eaten at Wendy's before, but they seem to enjoy the experience ... "That flavored frozen petroleum gel called a Frosty was interesting," they say.

Then there are the locally owned spots we enjoy. The Dog Watch Café in Stonington is high on that list, and so we were jazzed in 2016 when a satellite effort, Dog Watch BBQ, opened on Old Stonington Road in a space formerly occupied by an old clam shack next to that tiny Christmas ornament shop. The idea behind Dog Watch BBQ was to incorporate the endearing qualities and characteristics of the original with the allure of smoked meats and homey sides like collard greens and man 'n' cheese.

After tinkering with the concept in real time, the restaurant is now officially called the Dog Watch Mystic, and while barbecue and sides are indeed on the menu, they're part of a bigger concept that includes a raw bar, pub-style appetizers, sandwiches, "almost entrees," pizzas, salads, and "Land and Sea" options that are, in fact, entrees.

As with the original Watch, which is located at Dodson Boatyard in Stonington, part of the charm of the Mystic venture is the restaurant itself: It features cozy indoor seating with a high-ceilinged bar area on one side and a cozier, family-welcome dining space on the other. There are vertically striped walls and large, framed art depicting Mystic watercraft and the waterfront, along with a functioning fireplace and big screen TV. The tables are well-spaced yet intimate, and there's plenty of nourishing, natural light through windows that overlooking an expansive, football field-shaped area. It includes an outdoor bar, a nice deck and high-top tables with umbrellas, a fire pit, kids' games and cornhole and, at the far end, a large seating area inside a tent — perfect for rainy weather or private functions.

Our servers were consistently friendly, nearby and always ready, whether with a beverage refill or suggestions. The staff is part of what makes it all great.

I'm not gonna lie: When I first heard about Dog Watch BBQ, I was most intrigued by the "BBQ" part. And though that seems to no longer be the conceptual anchor of the restaurant, it's nonetheless the part I was most interested in exploring.

Eileen and I have been there three times recently. Once was in early spring — just as the restaurant was shifting into a summer menu — and then twice recently with friends. On the inaugural visit, Eileen, the Vegetarian Who Walks Among Us (TVWWAU), immediately ordered their veggie burger — only to be told they were out that day. No prob, sayeth she. It's not an unusual situation for her and she opted for a salad (more later). When we returned for visits two and three, though, the veggie burger was gone from the menu. Sigh ...

Anyhoo, there's plenty to like at Dog Watch Mystic. Here's what we thought, starting with appetizers:

Guacamole and chips ($8) — This is frequently an "afterthought" dish, as though the restaurant sort of HAS to have it, and the kitchen churns it out with efficiency but not much more. This was a stellar effort with coarsely chopped, fresh avocado blended with perfect doses of cilantro and lime. The house-crafted, tri-color chips were warm and studded with tiny crystals of salt. A dipping cask of salsa — sweet more than spicy but flavorful — added to the glory.

Signature Mac 'n cheese balls ($8) — In a word that you almost never hear, these were awesome. Not quite ping pong-sized, they had a crisped outer shell and real, gooey, toothsome mac/cheese inside. Goodness oozed forth. There weren't a whole lot of them, but maybe it seemed that way because we ate them so fast.

Pickle fries ($8) — A Doggy take on southern fried pickles. Unlike those coins of dill pickle chips, these were spears that had been quartered lengthwise, lightly battered and fried, with the tart pickle meat singing close harmony with a tangy horseradish sauce.

Chopped pasta salad ($12) — A TVWWAU choice inasmuch as there's no longer a veggie burger (and even then she had to omit the bacon), there were diced bits of mixed greens and cavatappi pasta spun with red onion and gorgonzola. The perky lettuce and chewy pasta clashed winningly with the cheese and a subtle dressing.

Fish & chips — Our nephew Jack, visiting from Texas, had the noble if perhaps repetitive idea to eat nothing but fish & chips while he was up here. He thoroughly enjoyed the 'watch version. The portion was huge and — as per the appetite of a 19-year-old — he inhaled the whole thing happily. The white fish had a subtle flavor, with a firm but not overwhelming coating, and the thick fries worked well. Lemon and vinegar were applied over the whole thing with pleasing results. 

The Roasted Cod ($19) — It was nuanced with a rich but not overpowering garlic wine sauce and punctuated with parmesan panko. The generous portion of flaky fish had a refreshing, just-off-the-dock flavor, and served with smooth mashed potatoes and a bright, fresh mélange of green beans and carrots, it was a perfect New England-y dish.

Oh, and about that original barbecue theme. There's brisket, ribs and pulled pork available, and I tried all three. Time and circumstanced dictated that, between Dog Watch Mystic visits, I was in Dallas and ate at Lockhart's and Pecan Lodge — literally two of the greatest barbecue joints in the world — so it was an interesting juxtaposition.

The Dog Watch does a tasty job. There's a distinctive thread running through the meats. Any house rub or seasoning is minimal, and though there's a pleasing woodsmoke presence, it's faint, too. That said, the brisket has a tender quality and a nice flavor, with just enough fat to provide that moist kick. The ribs were lean, and it enjoyable and not overcooked, and the pulled pork came in a bountiful heap with the shreds and hunks delightfully pork-ish. In the end, what helps are the two house sauces — a sweet and a spicy — which are dark, tomato-based creations that sparked the tongue and added depth to the experience.

A word about the dessert that none of us needed but were damned glad we ordered: We tried a caramel brownie with pretzel crust and topped with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream ($8). Stunning. In a deluxe afterlife, heaven's physicians would prescribe this dessert as essential to a healthy eternity.

It's nice that it's summer and we have two similar but also distinctive Dog Watch experiences close by. And when it's fall again, both spots will still be welcoming.

 

Dog Watch Mystic

20 Old Stonington Road, Mystic

(860) 245-4911, dogwatchcafe.com

Cuisine: Casually ambitious menu embracing seafood, sandwiches, pizza, barbecue and more

Atmosphere: A true destination in that New England-y sense that captures the summer shack vibe as well as providing a cozy interior for cooler months

Service: Spot on — friendly and always near without seeming intrusive

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily

Prices: Very reasonable with no entree over $26

Reservations: Call ahead for large parties; there's an outdoor tent that houses large groups

Handicap access: Ramp up to main level; indoor dining room small but there's room for wheelchair

 

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