New London's Green Room excels at Southern comfort food
I think I understand how this happened.
Y'see, in the charity/philanthropic causes biz, a popular fundraising tool is The Auction. Folks generously donate stuff to a worthy organization, and those attending the function bid on the items with the money going to the cause. Obviously, donating a valuable or particularly cool item is best because it will draw escalating bids beyond the already large and generous opening offer. More money = good.
But veterans of these noble causes know the importance of having plenty of "less starry" bid items, too. In general, it's just fun to have a playful and whimsical batch of lower-end items — rather like the impulse-buy rack at the grocery store.
A few months back, as part of The Day's by-definition community mission, the newspaper made a few contributions to a good-cause auction table: the chance for a bidder to go on a restaurant review excursion with a Day dining writer. Me, it turns out, along with my wife, who's very popular with readers because of her status as The Vegetarian Who Walks Among Us (TVWWAU).
The winners were Neal Bobruff and Jane Lassen Bobruff, an extremely nice Stonington couple with strong ties to their native New London. In fact, on being asked if they had any dream destinations for our outing, Neal and Jane were interested in visiting any recently opened and family-run New London restaurant that might be out there. Perfect, because TVWWAU and I had been looking forward to reviewing the Green Room, a Southern comfort food restaurant in that more-than-familiar location on Bank Street that has previously housed Ye Olde Tavern and, most recently, the Bream Cove Tavern.
The four of us met for dinner on a cold, rainy evening last week in the Green Room, with its clean and welcoming front dining room next to a wall-long bar and tavern area. There's also a rear dining room and, in the middle of the floorplan is a large, crackling fireplace that would delight Sam McGee. On the brick chimney above the flames is a large circular mirror with the word LOVE written in Valentine's Day-colored script.
Jane, who is a shareholder at The Day, and Neal are well traveled and wittily conversant on topics spanning local and national politics, history, the arts and popular culture, community and social activism, and the Boston Red Sox. But what's truly important is that we were there to critically evaluate the Green Room, which opened last summer under the warm and more-than-capable hands of childhood friends and New London natives Tondra Bryant and Jonai Phillips, along with Bryant's longtime boyfriend Shakim Outler. Their staff is similarly engaging and friendly, and we never felt hurried despite our protracted conversations.
It's our pleasure to report — with strong unanimity — that the Green Room was a wonderful dining experience across the board. In fact, across the board TWICE. We enjoyed it so much that the four of us decided to reconvene a few days later for the Green Room's weekend brunch. Again: superb.
In terms of cuisine, there are indeed strong soul food elements, which is to say the seasonings and dishes borrow heavily from southern and also Afro-Caribbean traditions. The menu is relatively concise, but it's imaginative and fuses several styles with deft execution and creativity. And know this going in: Portions are very large, which means even the appetizers ($8.95-$10.95) work in terms of "main entree" serving-size. There are also a soups & salads section ($6.95-$9.95), pasta options ($14.95-$29.95), tacos ($11.95), and four a la carte choices ($14.95-$23.95 including fried, jerk, grilled or BBQ chicken, fish of the day, the Green Room burger, and a New York Strip).
Also integral to the experience are the numerous sides ($5.95) that include garlic spinach, cabbage, candied yams, coconut rice, mashed potatoes, stunningly good greens, fries, luxurious mac and cheese, and honey corn bread.
Just. Fantastic. All of it.
We started with two appetizers. The Grilled Romaine Salad ($9.95) was a construct of criss-cross, lightly charred half-heads, festooned with bleu cheese and balaslmic dressing, cherry tomatoes and pickled red onions. None of us remembered having anything quite like this, but we will again. Similarly distinctive was a wondrous order of Eggplant Meatballs ($8.95) and, yes, substitute ground eggplant for meat. I've taken a vow as a professional to avoid whenever possible using the word "zesty," but ... well, it WAS zesty. And delighfully tart. The texture was exactly like a standard meatball, but there was that earthy eggplant underpinning that, when spangled with homemade marinara, was completely seductive.
• Fish Tacos ($11.95) — Three specimens: beautifully cooked and seasoned bits of white fish with a nice batter coating, nestled in flour tortillas and sprinkled with tangy sweet and sour slaw. Each bite, delicately dipped into a mango salsa, was a flash-dance.
• Jerk Chicken ($17.95) — In addition to the subtle heat of the rub coating the plump, boneless thighs was another layer of flavor; a confluence of subtle spices that gently poked you in the tongue and taunted, "You don't know what we are, do you? But you love us!"
• Seafood Burrito ($10.95) — Technically an appetizer, I enjoyed it as a main course. Surreally good, with generous chunks of shrimp and fish and fluffy rice nuanced by a spicy cilantro aioli and a large flour tortilla. Was that Neal trying to distract me so he could steal more of it? Why, yes.
• Rasta Pasta ($16.95) — TVWWAU has long awaited an opportunity to have the "jerk seasoning" experience, and this meatless version provided that chance. A massive platter of toothsome penne slathered in a herbaceous sauce, there was a sly, teasing heat that lingered and worked well with "al dente" peppers in red, green, and yellow.
Sunday brunch ($19.95) was similarly triumphant, with a short but power-packed menu complete with gratis Bloody Marys or Mimosas and a fruit/muffin/salad bar to start. Between the four of us, we tried close to everything:
• The Green Room Omelet (with a choice of two from numerous ingredients) — Loads of garden fresh spinach and a hearty Swiss cheese for counterpoint, all folded inside fluffy, deftly nuanced eggs and next to a generous side lovely, lightly seasoned and crispy home fries.
• Jim's Crab Cakes in Cheese Grits (the special at $23.95) — Large bits of piquant, torn-from-the-sea crabmeat anchored in delicate breading and buried in some of the most insanely good cheese grits in the history of the world.
• Chicken 'n' Waffles — Large strips of moist and peppery chicken breast placed atop oven-toasty, cinnamon-flecked waffles with honey and syrup. Each bite of the different flavors was star-spangled.
• Shrimp 'n' Cheese Grits — Did I save the best for last? No, because it's all so good. But I could eat this for a succession of days and nights — at least until I explode. Four large Gulf shrimp with Creole seasoning in the aforementioned grits — only now there were hidden coins of sharply flavored Andouille sausage. Heaven hopes it'll die and go to the Green Room for this dish.
Look, for its size, New London has some very good restaurants, and the Green Room is now one of them. TVWWAU and I are so glad to have shared these exceptional experiences, and part of the greatness is that we did so with new friends who were simply trying to help out a good cause. I think all concerned won.
The Green Room
345 Bank St., New London
(860) 574-9030, greenroomnl.com
Cuisine: Southern comfort food
Service: Exceptionally friendly and eager to please
Atmosphere: Roomy and casual, with large fireplace, mellow soul music playing, a nice bar and an instantly comfortable vibe
Prices: Very reasonable for the quality and huge portions
Hours: 4-10 p.m. Wed. and Thurs., 4-11 p.m. Fri. and Sat., 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sun.
Credit cards: Yes
Handicapped access: Step up from outside; rear entry is level with access to back parking lot