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    Tuesday, October 04, 2022

    Craft brews, bar food and ambience delight at the Draft Choice

    Veggie tacos from Draft Choice in New London (Eileen Jenkins)

    A few years ago, a committee from the MIT's Sloan School of Management in partnership with the Culinary Institute of America presented a weekend retreat called "How to Dazzle 'Em in the Tricky Restaurant Business."

    At the Welcoming Pig Roast and Happy Hour, hosted by the official gazpacho-taster for the Court of Guy "King Midas" Fieri, participants were gifted with souvenir cocktail napkins that contained the following formula for "How to Dazzle 'Em in the Tricky Restaurant Business." To wit:

    1. Try to find a cool location in a hip little city like New London, CT

    2. Never underestimate the oh, so seductive power of craft beers and well-made bar food

    3. Always — ALWAYS — plan on opening your restaurant about four weeks before a global pandemic that will slowly suffocate the economy of every country in the world not called New Zealand

    4. Do not forget to ___ (I can't read the rest of #4 because I set my gin and tonic on that part of the napkin and the beads of moisture from the frost-beaded glass blurred the printing)

    That retreat of course did not happen. I made it up. But, as it turns out, The Draft Choice, a sorta-new establishment on State Street in the Whaling City, fulfills at least the first three of those advisories. And — obviously — opening at the onset of a pandemic isn't in a good luck situation.

    Anyhoo, located in the old Hi 5's spot just across from the Garde Arts Center, the Draft Choice is the long-dreamt-of establishment owned by the wife-husband team of Anne Bernhard and Beto Zuniga. If you see either or both wearing GO CAMELS attire, it could be because Bernhard is the Katharine Blunt Professor of Biology at Connecticut College and Zuniga was a Mac specialist in the school's IT department.

    He retired from the school to focus completely on the Draft Choice while Bernhard continues at the college and works in the bar evenings and weekends. Together and with a quality and friendly staff, they've got a pretty great little place despite suffering the hardships implied by opening at the onset of COVID.

    They survived for months providing take-out from their small but spot-on menu and selling growlers from an expansive and thoughtfully curated array of (frequently local) craft beers. Then, in October, they temporarily shut down to ride out the awful upswing in the virus.

    At the start of April, Draft Choice re-opened and folks are starting to gather to enjoy a fine and all-around experience. The interior is long and narrow with a bar on the right, plenty of big screen sports, pleasant ambience and décor, and a hallway leading to an exterior staircase in the back. Follow the steps down to a wonderful patio most like a New Orleans courtyard. There are long picnic tables, a few tall tops, festive lights, and — it IS New England — toasty outdoor heaters.

    The beer menu contains over a dozen varieties with a focus on Connecticut brews such as hyper-locals Beer'd, Tox and Fox Farms. Back East Brewing, OEC, Counter Weight and Fat Orange Cat round out the Nutmegger offerings while Pennsylvania's Victory and Ohio's Boulevard are also available. Yes, it's possible to get a can of PBR and — bonus for those who are driving — three different non-alcoholic selections from Athletic Brewing that taste like, ah, real and good beer. The beer is cold and served in 6-ounce pours or full pints — and, yes, they do go well with the food.

    The feasting choices are undeniably limited and simple, but the food is very good and provides the sort of context needed for an afternoon and/or evening devoted to exploring craft brews. You'll choose from combinations of chicken wings or nuggets, fries, chicken sandwiches, a burger and a dog, chips and fire-roasted salsa, a Bavarian pretzel stick, veggie tacos, and a black bean burrito.

    To start, we tried the chips and salsa ($5), and it was a true highlight experience. Large, warm triangles of just-friend corn tortilla are more than sturdy enough to dip in a house-coaxed blend of chipotles, tomatoes, jalapenos and other secrets. Spicy but not too hot, this stuff is truly excellent.

    The veggie tacos ($7 for three) blended nicely charred zucchini, bell peppers, cilantro-lime slaw and a pleasant jolt of Draft Choice Spicy Sauce in soft flour tortillas. The vegetable juice and sauce softened the tortilla blanket to provide a fine chew.

    The black bean burrito ($10) used similar fillings, bolstered by smoky beans and rice and a slathering of gooey melted cheese. One of these and three IPAs and you might find yourself a block away at the Holiday Inn, ready for a nap.

    A hamburger and fries ($12, $13 with cheese) exemplify the backyard cookout approach. The 7-ounce patty was grill-crusted magnificence, simply decorated with oozing cheese and fresh lettuce and tomato on a plain but lightly toasted bun. Magnificent in its perfect simplicity! The fries could have been hand cut and prepared by sainted Mom, who damned sure qualified as a French fry sorceress.

    A dozen small-to-medium chicken nuggets ($12.50) were ably grilled tenderloin with no batter. I found them a bit bland even with the orange soda barbecue sauce — which I tried impulsively based on the general concept. I found the sauce overly sweet and syrupy, and I wish I'd gone with my original idea to try the Old Bay seasoning dry rub; there are many rubs and sauces, so this one's on me.

    A word about what might be called the bar's designer cocktail menu. There is a permanent selection as well as rotating specials such as a Green Giant ($12) that includes gin and sugar snap peas. I also can't help but mention a margarita variation called The Nacho ($12) because, according to the menu, it's inspired by adult film star Nacho Valdez. No telling how many customers have pulled out the ol' cell phones to google the sensual thespian, but don't do so if you happen to be dining with your pastor.

    What you SHOULD do, with this wonderful late spring weather, and summer beckoning, and pandemic restrictions easing, is visit the Draft Choice. I suspect it will become a regular stop.

    Cheeseburger and fries at Draft Choice in New London (Eileen Jenkins)

    If you go

    The Draft Choice

    318 State St., New London

    (860) 405-4015, draftchoicect.com

    Cuisine: Simply designed bar food menu to augment a craft beer experience

    Service: Efficient, helpful and some nice banter

    Ambience: Clean, comfortable sports bar surroundings inside; French Quarter-esque beer garden outside

    Handicap access: Street level entry in front and a gate from back parking lot for beer garden

    Prices: Modest to high-modest with food ranging from $5-$15, beers $3-$8, and designer cocktails $9-$13

    Credit cards: Yes

    Reservations: Maybe call ahead for large beer garden assemblage

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