all 📷 by Elizabeth Saede
As the weather chills, we turn to sweaters, boots and comfort foods. Swimsuits are behind us for a while and so, too, are green salads and lean grilled meats. It’s time to embrace cheesy pasta, juicy burgers, warming soup, fried food, and luscious desserts. Focus on the joy of eating and the company of friends who like to share. Fight the urge to hibernate even though it’s already dark outside. Text a friend to meet you or pick them up on your way but don’t let them miss out. Food and fun are so close and there are no dishes (for you) to wash. Do you prefer creamy, spicy, crunchy, sweet or savory? Great, I like that too.
Red 36 (2 Washington St) showcases soaring walls of glass, a roaring fireplace and a spectacular 180 degree view of the Mystic River. Lobster Mac & Cheese (photo above) has creamy cheddar and Parmesan sauce, hunks of tender lobster meat and is topped with herbed bread crumbs and two full lobster claws. The subtle sauce artfully enhances the lobster’s mild flavor.
Seafood Paella arrives as well as creamy risotto style rice with saffron, cheese, chorizo, chicken and peas, encircled by whole, tiny mussels. Lobster Carbonara has thick cut bacon, peas, and bites of lobster in silky cream sauce on pappardelle noodles. Meaty lean chili topped with cheddar and sour cream pairs with tortilla chips for scooping again and again. The chili seems designed for sharing but you may find it difficult to part with any of it.
Chocolate Lava Cake is densely moist and paired perfectly with rich vanilla bean ice cream, chocolate and caramel sauces. Chocolate Crème Bruleé is rich and fudgy. Specialty drinks include Bananas Foster Alexander. Lobster Mac & Cheese is my favorite bite of the meal. My sibling dining companion says he’d order each item again and wishes he lived closer to indulge more often.
The Irons (20 Coogan Blvd) is a hidden treasure tucked into the Hilton Mystic. High back booths, open tables and a stone fireplace provide cozy ambiance. Past a wall of glass lies a fresh air patio protected by hotel walls. Comfortable seating surrounds a horizontal fire pit with 2 foot high safety glass leaving a ledge for drinks or snacks.
Warm chilly hands on the creamy Chowder Trio Flight with Bacon Bourbon Corn Chowder, Crab and Andouille Chowder, and New England Clam Chowder. Bacon Bourbon Corn Chowder won the People’s Choice Award 2 years ago at Olde Mistick Village’s Chowder Cook Off and is our favorite of the three.
The 8 ounce Onion Bacon Compote Burger drips brie on a grilled brioche roll and is served with skin on, addictively delicious French fries. An 8 ounce house burger with lettuce, tomato, and cheese is only $6 on Tuesday nights or $5 without cheese.
Majestic scallops reign over sautéed spinach with garlic and onion atop chunky sweet potato mash in a vibrant presentation. Each monster scallop boasts a caramelized exterior and creamy interior but the spinach and sweet potato layers also pack luscious flavor. Don’t miss this dish! New Executive Restaurant Chef, Jamey Hence, loves preparing impeccably fresh, local seafood. My favorite bite is the Seared Scallops but, oh, those fries!
Chapter One Food & Drink (32 W Main St) serves Medjool dates stuffed with Gorgonzola, wrapped in thick cut bacon baked until chewy and drizzled with balsamic glaze in a Devils on Horseback appetizer. Each bite explodes in chewy, creamy, tart flavor. Seared sea scallops and asparagus over gently-infused tomato basil rice comprises Scallops Risotto. Optional freshly grated Parmesan elevates the flavor. Vegan Paella is packed with guilt-free fresh veggies including edamame. Cavatelli Bolognese has tender veal bites, sweet Italian sausage and meatball crumbles in a light port wine tomato sauce. When topped with fresh Parmesan, it tastes like homemade Italian comfort food. If you’re not sure what to order get freshly-made potato chips for snacking or a juicy half pound burger.
I’m grateful to have room for dessert because ricotta cheesecake with raspberry compote is the star of the meal. The huge creamy slice is lightly sweetened and not overly dense. A new espresso machine delivers creative coffees and both red and white sangria provide plenty of warming choices. My favorite bookend bites were the Devils on Horseback and Ricotta Cheesecake. New Executive Chef Jim Ward takes the helm with ten years’ experience from Dog Watch Café while Chef Bret leads the Chapter One crew in Guilford.
Samurai Noodle’s (27 W Main St) luscious house made ramen and slow roasted broths yield pure pleasure. Inhaling the delicious aroma while cupping hands on the bowl provides soothing warmth before the first taste. This is the meal I daydream about in cold months. The Spicy Pork Tonkotsu Ramen bowl is packed with freshly made wheat noodles, sliced pork, bean sprouts, steamed bamboo shoots, mushrooms, bok choy, 2 half soft boiled eggs, and scallions. The complex flavors ebb and flow on the tongue: salty then sweet then spicy then rich. Its spicy heat clears sinuses and warms to the bone. Popular Roasted Garlic Ramen contains kimchi and is even hotter.
Spicy Thai Peanut Stir Fry has broccoli, onions, carrots, scallions and a peanut sauce that is more warm than spicy but so delicious with shrimp. Ask for a spoon so you can scoop sauce onto your rice. Chicken Curry has an entire Panko coated, fried chicken breast cut into slices over vegetable curry. The meat is juicy and the vegetables tender. Coconut Ice Cream explodes with luscious flavor in a surprising “wow” ending. Special thanks to Dennis who plated our dessert beautifully for photos.
Tip: if you have leftover broth or sauce from your meal you can buy extra noodles or extra rice to bring home. My favorite bite was the ramen bowl but coconut ice cream is a fantastic end to any spicy meal. An expanded Asian fusion menu features favorite dishes from sister restaurants Spice Club and Pink Basil meaning there’s something for every taste.
The 36 year old Captain Daniel Packer Inne (32 Water St) is one of only two restaurants inducted into the Connecticut Restaurant Hall of Fame this year. Quintessential New England charm resonates from the 1754 home of Captain Daniel Packer. Which food has been served throughout all 36 years? Beer-battered fish and chips. A huge fillet of buttery cod in a crispy crust arrives with browned, skin-on fries and coleslaw. Surrounded by rough stones walls and a roaring fireplace in the basement pub, it is easy to picture guests eating this delicious shoreline meal hundreds of years ago and not only for decades.
The Stuffed Portobello Mushroom appetizer is baked with creamy, faintly garlicy Boursin cheese, topped with buttery herbed bread crumbs and served with balsamic glaze. Seacoast Mushrooms in Stonington furnishes these brown beauties. New Zealand Venison arrives as a plump, meltingly tender, perfectly seasoned chop served medium rare. Garlic cream potato gnocchi, roasted red tomatoes, green beans and truffle peelings round out this brilliant dish. The richly flavored meat evokes a New England hunting lodge vibe while roasted garlic cream gnocchi has Italian roots. Both cuisines from the far end of the globe combine in a comforting dish best savored on a cold day.
Apple Bread Pudding’s cider reduction is made from Apple Pie Full Moonshine from Canton, CT for a homey ending that isn’t too sweet. A cup of hot cider would be a great accompaniment. My surprisingly favorite bite of the meal is the venison and I believe Captain Packer would be pleased to see all these wonderful ingredients served in his home. The River Room on the top floor has stunning views of the Mystic River and seats up to 40 for private meals and meetings.
Come eat at great Mystic restaurants and bring a friend with you. Savor real food and real human conversation then repeat. If you’re feeling guilty, take a brisk walk or divide the flavor and calories. Comfort food is meant to be enjoyed and Netflix will still be there for you tomorrow. What are you craving today and who will you invite?