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The Day’s critics: Best restaurants we reviewed in 2021

Via Emilia

24 West Main St., Mystic

(860) 415-4840

This gem of an Italian restaurant had the misfortune of opening in March of 2020 just four days before Connecticut's governor forced eateries to close because of COVID. But, hallelujah, it survived, and its growing legion of fans are grateful for that.

Everything about Via Emilia is top-notch. The food, the wine, the service, the ambience. They make every guest feel special and reward them with creative, delicious food and drinks.

The pasta is all made in-house and prepared as ravioli, gnocchi, spaghetti, pappardelle and fixed with things like short rib ragu, Bolognese, fish, lobster, clams, and mussels. There is also a veal scaloppine with locally grown mushrooms and fingerling potatoes, and scallops with winter squash caponata and almond and apricot vinaigrette. Go traditional and get the pasta e fagioli, or the Cesare salad Parmigiano, with roasted garlic and anchovy dressing.

Don't miss the cocktail menu, with choices like spumante, negronis, and the Via Emilia Spritz, a prosecco with bitters and citrus. Reservations are recommended, and it's smart to arrive a little early so you can find a parking spot in busy downtown Mystic. Salute!

— Ann Baldelli

Oven-On Bakery

227 Jefferson Ave., New London

(860) 446-6136

There are no Michelin stars here. Travel & Leisure Magazine isn't diverting a crew of journalists and photographers from Santorini to be here. That isn't Bobby Flay parking his Vespa out front to pick up some tamales.

But maybe all that SHOULD happen.

Oven-On is a small, humble, family bakery that features a dazzling array of pastries and home-style Latin cuisine to a loyal clientele that mostly speaks Spanish. But all are welcome, and the food is incredible.

Many of the pan dulce sweets involve tropical fruit fillings, and the cinnamon rolls and elephant ears should be accompanied by "DANGER OF ADDICTION" stickers. The lunch and dinner items are spectacular, too. The giant, aforementioned tamales (chicken or pork) are the sort of things Gods eat while They laze around heaven; tacos and burritos are everything excellent about Mexican street food-style cuisine; and the La Canoa breakfast delicacy — half a fried plantain stuffed with spicy ground beef and melted cheese — is a caloric bit of delightful alchemy. Nice folks, too.

— Rick Koster

Marker 37

Chester Point Marina, 72 Railroad Ave., Chester

(860) 579-3737, www.markerthirtyseven.com

Marker 37 in Chester carried on the outdoor-eating season beautifully. Its fabulous patio, situated a few steps from the Connecticut River, created an instant-vacation vibe, complete with excellent cocktails.

The interior is gorgeous, too, and you can watch boats cruising in and out of the Chester Point Marina out of most windows.

We found something to love in most sections of the menu, from the New York Sirloin Crostini app and Guacamole BLT to the Chicken Milanese and outstanding Mousse Duet dessert. 

Whether it's date-night or a quick drink before a show, Marker 37 provides a relaxed, chic space that's proven popular since it opened in June. We look forward to many more afternoons on the patio.

— Marisa Nadolny

The Spice Palette

929 Bank St., New London

(959) 201-6913, thespicepalatteus.com

There's no shortage of great Indian food in the area, so I take it seriously when I pronounce the recently opened Spice Palette as a "top of the list" establishment. For that matter, after just a few visits, my wife Eileen and I already think it's going to be one of our favorite dining destinations for a long time.

Part of the magic of the place is the fact that chef Lijoy Varghese, who owns the restaurant with his wife Niya Lijoy, is a master of Northern and Southern Indian cuisines as well as Malaysian dishes — and cheerfully twists and turns within what he regards as the loose parameters implied by those styles. There are plenty of vegetarian options, a dazzling number of breads and choices from the Tandoor oven, and seafood, chicken and lamb standards. But Varghese's subtle but ridiculously great twists on time-honored recipes are magical. Also, the staff is very friendly, and the atmosphere is simultaneously casual but refined.

— Rick Koster

Sneekers Cafe

568 Poquonnock Road, Groton

(860) 445-1967

If you want a great meal at a fair price with excellent service, pay a visit to Sneekers Café in Groton, where owners Annie Porte and Rhonda Dempsey have been taking care of business for 37 years.

The place is not fancy, but the comfort food is terrific. Like the Fried Brussel Sprouts with chipotle mayonnaise dipping sauce or the Gorgonzola Garlic Bread. You can limit your calories with a Spinach Salad, but why not indulge and go for the Fish a Ma Jig with fried haddock, cheese and cole slaw on buttery grilled white bread with French fries on the side?

There is a beef and bean burrito, a burger, and salmon, haddock, and scallop dinners. Many diners opt for Sneekers' legendary Wicked Chicken Pasta. And there are always daily specials.

The fact that Sneekers has been around for almost four decades is a testament to its food and service. The region is blessed with a multitude of great eateries and this is one of them.

— Ann Baldelli

Crescent Beach Stand

37 Bayview Ave., Niantic

www.flandersfish.com/the-stand

Thankfully, we food writers began our cautious reentry to the local restaurant scene during the warmer weather months, which meant outdoor dining was in full swing.

Restaurateurs had mastered the art of leveraging the weather amid a pandemic, and I remain impressed with the ingenuity and care they employed to get us back a little closer to normal.

And what's more normal than a bucket of fries (seasoned with Old Bay) and a hot dog (topped with bacon) at the beach? Thanks to the crew at the Flanders-Fish-run Crescent Beach Stand in Niantic, many folks, between dips in the Sound, were able to grab a bite that went above and beyond the burger shack basics in terms of quality and preparation.

Here's hoping the Stand pops up again in the summer of 2022.

— Marisa Nadolny

 

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