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    Friday, August 19, 2022

    Herb's Cafe & Restaurant in Uncasville is only part of the fun

    Potato Pancakes Benedict (Eileen Jenkins)
    Breakfast and browsing part of the fun at Herb's Cafe & Restaurant

    It's always a good idea to have breakfast or lunch at Herb's Country Deli & Restaurant in Uncasville. But our favorite time is late Sunday morning, when there are enthusiasts ahead of you requiring a wait of 15 or 20 minutes.

    Why is that good?

    It gives you time to wander next door to Herb's Country Store, which is one of those Vermonty places with fresh fruits and vegetables and fresh flowers and plants and pumpkins in the fall and always homemade jam and cheese and candles and soap. It's the sort of place you'd pass on a rural road while you're on your way to see Robert Frost's grave. But you pass by because you've got to get to the cemetery — only you arrive and it's black fly season and the place is dense with them. So you tell the e'er-still poet you've got miles to go before you sleep and you return instead to that folksy vegetable stand/shop.

    THEN you say, "Hey, this place is just like Herb's Country Store in Uncasville! Too bad there isn't a restaurant next door like there is at Herb's because it's really good."

    It's fair to add that we spent more money in Herb's Country Store last Sunday than we did on breakfast — but we're not complaining. The whole scenario is pretty great.

    Immersion into Herb-ness

    Herb's Country Deli & Restaurant is more than a culinary extension of the Herb empire. It's sort of a segue. When you walk in, there's an old-fashioned lunch counter on the right, a cluttered host/hostess station center, and a cooler filled with pies and baked goods on the left. On the walls and shelving and countertops are all sorts of knickknacks and souvenirs you can buy — and you're a fool if you don't take home one or more of the Granny's Pies (a Hartford outfit) that are available. You can get individual slices, a mini-pie or a full-sized item. There are plenty of fruit- and chocolate-centric recipes, Key lime, cheesecakes and so on. I strongly recommend the strawberry-rhubarb and my wife Eileen advocates for the pecan pie.

    Behind this front section is the dining room proper, filled with tables of a routinely wide cultural cross-section of happy folks. The walls are green and brown and covered with framed newspaper clippings, photos going back the half-century of Herb-ness, photos of Montville youth sports teams, hand-carved folksy sayings and framed Herb's menus of yore (sample from 1975: the Herb's Man-Sized Breakfast, "guaranteed to start your day right!" and including more food than the Patriots' training camp dining hall goes through in a week, for $2.49). There are also white boards listing the daily specials.

    One interesting thing is that there are twirling vertical racks and stacks of kids' books based on the immortal "Goodnight Moon" by Margaret Wise Brown. Dozens of titles! "Good Night Bears," "Goodnight Dump Truck," "Good Night Health Care Workers," "Good Night Pirate Ship," "Good Night Crime Scene Cleanup Crew" ...   (OK, I made the last one up, but: clearly Margaret Wise Brown is no longer with us, so who glommed onto the "Goodnight" franchise idea and is running wild with it? Wish I'd thought of it.)

    I pondered all this as Eileen and I enjoyed breakfast yet again. We've visited three times recently, and it's been excellent and creatively conceived food each time. The staff, too, is wonderful. The family matriarch might well drop by your table with a sample of just-baked banana/blueberry bread, oozing butter, for example. And the employees all have that assured comfort with each other AND the customers that suggests lengthy and happy tenures. Another thing I like is that they all wear brightly tie-dyed Herb's shirts, which is a style I'd perhaps expect if Phish opened a breakfast joint. But maybe Herb was at Woodstock. Who knows?

    Here are some dishes we loved:

    Strawberry Shortcake Pancakes ($9.95) — These are insane. Two giant, griddle-hot cakes with an interior layer of fresh strawberries. Then, on top and in the center is a sculptured turret of carved giant berries holding a mound of whipped cream, and all around is a generous sprinkling of powdered sugar. Did I augment with lavish amounts of melted butter and then maple syrup? Further augmentation: a side of sausage patties ($4.50) — two large discs with a perfectly and lightly scorched exterior and a bit of well-seasoned oomph. Was it all wonderful? Do you really have to ask?

    Sausage Gravy Over Biscuits ($13.95) — This platter is neatly compartmentalized. Going left to right, there's a huge, soft and buttery biscuit butterflied and ladled with thick cream gravy flecked with toothsome bits of that fine sausage; a batch of crisply squared home fries; and two adeptly rendered and ultra-fluffy scrambled eggs.

    Potato Pancake Benedict ($14.95) — Two medium-thick pancakes, fluffy on the inside, crispy on the outside and imbued with potato greatness, are topped with perfectly poached eggs, thin slices of tomato and red onion, and a generous dollop of a velvety hollandaise sauce, garnished with green onion. It all sits on a bed of fresh baby spinach. Now that Eileen has discovered this, she says she may never order anything else again — anywhere.

    French Toast with Syrup and Butter (choice of two slices for $7.50 or three for $8.50) — Just the way you want it: the egg acts as a coating to fry up the bread and offer heft, but you don't taste a fried egg. You taste French toast. And butter. And cinnamon. And powdered sugar. And syrup. Sublime. (It's worth noting that other French toast options include raisin or multigrain, Monte Cristo, stuffed, or Elvis — from $7.50-$10.95.)

    Stuffed English ($11.95) — Well, hell. This sammich comes on a buttery, toasted English muffin and includes a generous heap of lean, thinly sliced roast beef, a fried egg, slivers of green peppers and tomato, crunchy bacon and melted Swiss. Breakfast? Yes. Lunch? Yes. Dessert? Why not?

    We're lucky to live in an area with a lot of very fine and distinctive family restaurants. It's fun to casually visit each in a sort of rotation we've established. But Herb's is special in its own way and well worth adding to your own list of regular stops.

    Strawberry Shortcake Pancakes (Eileen Jenkins)

    Herb's Country Deli & Restaurant

    1115 Norwich-New London Turnpike, Uncasville

    (860) 848-9888

    Cuisine: Home-style breakfast and lunches, wonderfully prepared and with creative spins alongside traditional favorites

    Atmosphere: Like you'd want and expect from a place that's been in the family for generations: kitschy, comfy, friendly and eclectic. The place is very clean for all the clutter (including restrooms with hot water!).

    Service: Amazing, considering the crowds at peak times. Balletic coordination between servers regardless of whose table is in what station. The emphasis is on the guests.

    Hours: 6 a.m.-2 p.m. Wed.-Sun.

    Reservations: There can be a wait on weekends, but get on the list and visit Herb's Country Store next door.

    Handicapped access: There's a ramp to a tight, right angle entry. A lot of dining room tables but there's room for maneuvering in the aisles.

    Prices: Moderate to expensive, but you get a lot of food and these are rough economic times.

    Credit cards: Yes

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