A January 2008 trip
to Connecticut by C.Kowalczik
Quote: Exploring Connecticut in search of restaurants that put forth the best of what the state has to offer; whether a chain restaurant or independently owned.
One of Connecticut’s growing gastronomic nuisances was the introduction of the "chain restaurant". Although a popular, affordable alternative to fine or casual dining, the chain restaurants offer patrons little more than an affordable meal with mediocre service at best. Pre-prepared food allows the chain to require no formal culinary training; hence there are no chefs on premise, only cooks. Most places employ waiters rather than servers and I challenge you to find a maitre d’. However if you are looking for a decent meal at a decent price you are in luck. Throughout Connecticut you can not throw a stone without coming across an Applebee’s, T.G.I. Friday’s or Chili’s. What has happened to the smartly run, reasonably priced restaurant where servers grace the dining room choreographed by a smartly dressed maitre d’?
Our newest quest allows us to explore the state of Connecticut in search of eating places that put forward the best of what the state has to offer; whether they be a chain restaurant or independently owned.
AAA members have special membership privileges giving them direct access to free tour books and personable one on one assistance for reliable and dependable suggestions. Member tour books offer readers restaurant evaluations by AAA Tourism Editors based on the restaurants merit alone, making the Connecticut Tour Book an impressive source of suggestions. Members can also stop into any number of local offices and strike up a conversation by asking the employees what they prefer. What better advertising than word of mouth.
The New Haven Advocate is a locally produced weekly publication of current events. Complete with reviews and suggestions for the arts, music, stage, film, events and dining the New Haven Advocate is on a quest of their own to find the very best in Connecticut dining experiences.
There are two main interstates dividing Connecticut: Interstate 91 runs from the city of New Haven, along the shore near the center of the state and continues through Enfield in the north, and Interstate 95 runs from Greenwich in the south and along the coastline, straight through to Rhode Island. Designed in 1954, Interstate 95 was originally developed to relieve the pressing traffic issues of US Rt. 1 and Rt. 15, the Wilbur Cross Parkway. However if you were to ask any of the 150,000 residents who travel I-95 on a daily basis, they will attest that construction is an everlasting project and causes more congestion than relief. Interstate construction has been ongoing in Bridgeport Connecticut since I was a child and the billion project to expand the Quinnipiac River bridge was recently extended through 2015.
Although the interstates create some delays, all major cities offer public transportation via the bus, local taxi service and Metro North railroad provides commuters with train service as well. However, if traveling either to or through Connecticut, I recommend driving. Whether you bring your own vehicle or rent one, you will find that this is the fastest and most convenient way to get around. If you plan on renting a car, Connecticut is home to most major rental companies at reasonable rates.
Having been to a comparable restaurant in Florida, we chose to make Saturday the night to dine at West Haven’s newest restaurant. From the outside the restaurant is larger than life, holding true to the old saying things are bigger in Texas. The building looks like a 19th century fort found on the Texas frontier, completed by the American and Texas State flags flying high about the buildings peaks.
The inside of the restaurant was packed and since we neglected to call head for seating we soon found ourselves in a waiting queue of ninety minutes. So we left our names with the hostess and she explained how the deli style counter flashed your number on the wall when our table was going to be ready. We thought it was a little strange having to watch the "now serving number 138" counter and with no where to sit we went to the bar for a drink or two to help pass the hour and a half wait time. Things began taking a turn for the worse when we had to wait between five and ten minutes for one of the three bartenders to acknowledge us standing at the bar. Sure it was busy, but the bartenders were busy talking amongst one another and putting away the fresh glasses from the kitchen. Once we finally ordered, we were served some of the coldest beer I have ever tasted in a tall frosted mug and a tasty whiskey sour in the most feminine 10oz piece of stemware at the bar. Even though the drinks were close to perfection, what made them even better was the price: a 10oz ice cold draft beer was only $1.99. An hour and a half was a long time to wait, so we snacked on some peanuts (yes, we did throw the shells on the floor) and had two drinks each. Coincidently the second whiskey sour was served in a more manly 24oz water glass.
Almost to the minute, our wait was over when we saw our number flash on the service board. From the hostess area we were escorted to the open grill area where you can select your cut of meat before you are even seated. There were no tables in the dining room, only booths and benches with high, hard wood backs. As a matter of fact everything in the restaurant was made of wood, oak I believe, giving it a very rustic cowboy kind of feeling. The wood floors were covered in peanut shells, the tables and booths were constructed of the same wood decorating the walls and those walls were decorated with neon beer lamps and trophy heads of animals. While we were waiting in the bar underneath the head of a buffalo, we had discussed that the layout of the dining room, which was compact and obviously laid out to utilize every inch of space. This became more apparent as we were sat at our booth which was inches, not feet but inches, from the back of the woman sitting at the booth adjacent to ours.
The dinner menus are left at the table and are a simple tri-fold offering of starters, hearty steaks, fall-off-the-bone ribs, chicken specialties, made from scratch side dishes and Texas sized combo platters. Unfortunately one of our menus was soggy and wet, so I put it back and selected another menu that had food stuck to it. Nonetheless I was able to make my selections and knew exactly what I wanted when our server arrived.
The server was a cute, energetic young woman named Kim. Little did we know at the time that Kim would be the only thing we walked out of the restaurant speaking positively about. She was fantastic; she was friendly, attentive, personable and everything that a good server should be. She assisted us by offering drink suggestions and recommended (up-sold) the side dishes to our entrees. It was immediately obvious to us that Kim was wasting her time in a restaurant like the Texas Roadhouse and we could only hope that her employer saw the potential that we experienced. We began our order with another round of drinks and a cactus blossom. We also ordered the fillet medallions with a peppercorn sauce, a Caesar side salad and mashed potatoes, and the Ft Worth Ribeye with a side house salad and baked sweet potato.
Almost immediately Kim returned to our table with our drinks and cactus blossom. Just in case you were wondering the whiskey sour did come in yet another sized glass. This time it was a small, 8oz rocks glass with the wrong garnish. The appetizer was amazing, a tasty deep fried onion served with a Cajun horseradish sauce. Unfortunately we did not have the opportunity to enjoy the appetizer because shortly there after our salads arrived. No sooner than we finished the salads our entrees were brought to the table. There was so little time for the appetizer, I almost feel it was a waste to order one.
Although rushed, I can not tell you how delicious our meals were. My only suggestion would be to season the ribeye before grilling and cover with some butter as soon as it is removed from the heat, other than that I could not have asked for a more perfect steak. With our stomachs full and our appetite diminished we asked Kim for a couple to-go containers for the food we couldn’t finish. That’s when it happened. That is the exact moment that we saw a bug crawl out of the peppercorn sauce and walk around the rim of the serving cup.
Disgusted with the thought that this insect was in the very same food that we just put into our mouths, we called Kim to our table. I had let the bug, which resembled a cross between a fruit fly and a spider, climb onto the steak knife so Kim could see what it was and I told her where we found it. She apologized, took the knife away from the table and summoned a manager
The service manager, Tony Ferror came to the table and began by saying "Kim told me you said you had a bug in your food and I want to let you know that we don’t have bugs in our food, our kitchen is clean." Tony continued by notifying me that although they have a clean kitchen (he even mentioned that the floors are washed daily - I would truly hope so), that with the change of seasons the bugs come in from outside to keep warm and they can’t seem to get them out of the dining area. He stated that they have called in people (I assume he meant they exterminator) and they (the bugs) are attracted to sugar…blah, blah, blah. He went into a rant about bugs and lost sight that one of those bugs crawled out of our meal. In the end Tony finally apologized and said typically when this happens he "comps the items the bug actually touched."
I didn’t have the control to argue with him, as I found his apology to be deprived of sympathy, his explanation to be an insult to my intelligence and his compensation to be an embarrassment because Tony removed the cost of the lowest priced meal, which coincidentally was not the meal the insect crawled out of. Any respectable restaurant manager would have compensated us for the entire check minus the alcohol. In conclusion, and I think you will agree, I do not feel it is in good taste to pay for a meal that comes accompanied with an insect.
In all my years of dining out I have never been insulted to the level of which I was. February in Connecticut is NOT a season change, a restaurant with bugs is a restaurant with bugs and compensation should never be the lowest priced item on the ticket. I am extremely disappointed with the experience and I could not, in good faith, return to or recommend a restaurant that openly admits that their dining room has an insect problem and their only rectification is to compensate for the items the bug actually touches.
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on February 13, 2008
524 Saw Mill Road
West Haven, Connecticut
Restaurant | "Southport Brewing Company"
Perhaps we should have done a little more research before our first visit to SBC in Branford, Connecticut because we were definitely confused once we got there. The first thing that we questioned was the fact we found a parking space right in front of the building at 6:30pm on a Saturday night, the same time when most restaurants would be on a wait.
However the empty parking lot wasn’t what confused us the most. From the outside, SBC is a rustic brew-house with a wooden exterior, outdoor patio and a stainless steel bucket in place of an ashcan. Seriously, there was a bucket of water that contained the butts of hundreds of smoked cigarettes; it was disgusting. Other than that from the outside SBC appeared to be exactly what you would expect from a good brew house: rustic and simple, good burgers, fried food and home-brew beer. However, once inside things began to change as our very friendly, very young hostess asked us if we wanted to sit at the bar, a booth or the dining room. Being that this was our first experience with SBC we opted for the dining room. As our hostess escorted us across the restaurant, we watched the rustic hardwood floors with the copper fermenting cast turn into a sophisticated nevue-style dining room where I suddenly became uncomfortable and felt underdressed.
We were sat at a quaint four-top dark wood table with a high back half-moon booth. I didn’t see our waitress approach the table because the 100-watt bulb in the hanging lamp above the table made it so you couldn’t see anything that wasn’t directly illuminated on the table. She was however polite and offered to take our drink order as we looked over the out of place dinner menu.
All we wanted was a couple burgers or sandwiches with fries, maybe some wings and a couple drinks. However, after looking at the menu, we found more than sixty items in eight different parts. SBC offers everything from bruschetta pomodoro and panko crusted pork loin to an Asian salad with sesame-crusted tuna and penne abate. They even have brick oven pizzas. A far cry from what we were looking for.
After studying the menu for a few moments we decided to hold true to what we wanted from SBC: sandwiches and an appetizer. We ordered the pulled pork quesadillas, which turned out to be quite disappointing as they were served cold. The cold goat cheese didn’t match well with the (possibly tainted) cold marinated pulled pork. However if the dish was served hot, with better fresh meat, it held the potential to have been a big success. My open-faced rib sandwich would have been just fine if it wasn’t for the obvious dark hair across the plate. Although the server was very apologetic, she took my plate to the kitchen and returned within ninety seconds. There was a new plate, but obviously the same food. And in the end there was no offer to compensate for the hair.
The one thing that SBC got spot-on was the very thing we came for in the first place: the brew burger. It was perfectly cooked and paired with delicious SBC brew fries. Our only issue with it was the portion size. The ½ pound angus beef and a mountain of fries was just too much.
Overall our experience at SBC in Branford was disappointing at best and I don’t anticipate returning any time soon. If asked my opinion, I would say that a brew house should stay true to its nature: offer guests what they expect - decent home-brew beer , burgers, fries and an assortment of appetizers. Stop pretending to be something you’re not! Get back to basics and simplify!
Member Rating 1 out of 5 on February 13, 2008
SBC Restaurant and Brewery-Branford
850 West Main Street
The restaurant had only been open in Shelton, Connecticut for about a month or so and the Saturday night business was still very overwhelming, as there was a two hour wait for a table for two. Sadly, the LongHorn Steakhouse doesn’t accept reservations so we called ahead before we left the house and took our time driving there.
We arrived and noticed that the restaurant was decorated with a rustic look, slightly more modern that I remember it to be, but nonetheless there was still a moose head over the bar. As we were seated I took notice that the tables and booths were all hard wood with earthy tones and the lighting was dim but allowed just enough light needed to enjoy your meal. Our server, Sam, was very friendly and bubbly and her service was very attentive.
The menu was full of great steak, ribs and chicken choices. I selected the Eye of Prime Rib, rare, Western Style with a sweet potato side and my wife ordered the Sioux City Strip, a USDA Strip topped with balsamic onions in a Red Diamond Merlot reduction and herb-shallot butter glaze with a side of mashed potatoes. When the meal arrived, Sam waited for us to cut into our meat before she walked away. However I took one look at my prime rib and could tell it was overcooked. Sam immediately took my plate back to the kitchen and sent the manager, Justin, to the table. Once Justin arrived he informed me that there was no rare prime rib left and offered me a rib eye cut instead; he also noticed that my wife’s steak was overcooked as well and took it right back into the kitchen.
Although we were slightly inconvenienced by the first attempt of our meal preparations, the apologetic nature of Justin and Sam made it no inconvenience at all. Not to mention that the second meal was definitely worth the wait. My rib eye was prepared perfectly and was one of the best steaks I have had this year. My wife’s meal was equally as impressive with the most delicious mashed potatoes that I have ever had. Ever. The meal was completed with an oversized, yet original and unique Golden Nugget Fried Cheesecake dessert.
In all, the LongHorn Steakhouse is a GREAT new addition to the Connecticut chain restaurants and we give them a long deserved welcome to the area. Lately with the chain restaurants it is hard to find a restaurant with both great service and good food. After receiving both from LongHorn, we would gladly return.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on February 13, 2008
I must say that this time I was very apprehensive to even attempt to enter the Ocean Grille on Saturday, February 9th, but we thought we would at least give them a try at an after dinner cocktail. After all Marley’s was perfect for a great glass of wine and a late snack.
Walking into the restaurant there was noticeably less reconfiguration than I had expected. One would have thought that attempting to open a new restaurant, they would want it differ from the restaurant that previously occupied the building. Maybe the thought was If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it? The bar was practically the same, apart from the tropical fish tank which was the only life in the place. The room was filled with dark woods; the tables, the chairs, the bar and even the molding were dark wood. The walls were painted a deep beige color from what I could see, because the lights were so dim it was hard to tell. The obvious attempt was to configure a formal atmosphere, however overall it was too dark and almost depressing. On top of that there were video poker machines on the bar and two stand up video games in the corner.
Unimpressed so far, we walked to one of the many open and available seats at the bar, sadly next to a video game. There was not a lot of business at the bar to keep the two bar tenders busy, so we were surprised that we sat there for over five minutes before someone even walked over. The bar tender was dresses in a classic black trouser and a black long sleeved shirt, keeping to the "dark" theme. He looked me right in the eye then turned to the three people to my left and began a conversation with the attractive brunette. He never even acknowledged the fact there were two new customers sitting at the bar, even though he looked right at me.
Aggravated and ready to leave we decided that we would give the second bar tender the same opportunity as she was slowly making her way towards us. We had been in the bar for what felt like half an hour, in the dark, but in reality it was more like ten minutes. At any rate we were not receiving the "phenomenal service" that owner Peter Biondi promises in the press release posted on the Ocean Grille’s website (which also lists the wrong postal zip code for the restaurant).
When we were finally noticed by the female bar tender, we immediately asked for the wine list. She didn’t have one accessible at the bar, so she had to retrieve one for us. Upon her return the only thing she said to us was "Wines by the glass are on the last page" and she walked away. None the less it didn’t matter. A quick review of the wine by the glass menu told us that the rumors of over pricing held true. The most affordable Russian River Chardonnay was $12 per glass. Something you can find in any local retail store for $18 a bottle.
In the end it’s hard to give an accurate recommendation of the Ocean Grille, mostly because the service was so inadequate that we didn’t get to experience it ourselves before walking out. With the bar posting such a high mark up on wine by the glass and the dinner menu charging $15.99 for fish & chips or $19.99 for shrimp scampi, I would have to agree with the owner when he said the Ocean Grille would provide customer with a "..memorable experience that simply isn’t available anywhere else."
And with service like that it soon will not be available at all, even at the Ocean Grille.
**UPDATE**As of June 2008 the Ocean Grill has gone out of business and closed it's doors. The restaurant is currently under new ownership/management and operating as Rob Roy's
Member Rating 1 out of 5 on February 14, 2008
Located at the Citibank Plaza in Orange, Connecticut, the Shanghai Gourmet takes conventional Chinese take out to a much higher level of standards. Although the restaurant offers takeout service, by doing so you will miss the opportunity of a quaint 30 seat dining room. Unlike most Chinese take outs that offer small, shaky tables and uncomfortable metal chairs, the Shanghai Gourmet has a more traditional dining room with rustic hard wood floors and beautiful cherry wood tables and chairs. The dining room is decorated plainly with a natural, comfortable at home feeling accompanied with big, bay windows allowing plenty of sunlight to illuminate your experience.
There are many points of interest that separate the Shanghai Gourmet from other Chinese take outs, however the main difference is extremely apparent with the use of fresh ingredients. So many times have I ordered take out and been served lifeless, canned vegetables. However this has never been the case from the Shanghai Gourmet. I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised from my very first visit, and with every return thereafter, I am served creative Asian regional dishes with the freshest of ingredients. I can not tell you how noticeably different Chinese food tastes when using fresh mushrooms, tomatoes, peapods and authentic fresh herbs. Fresh, simple, tasty and beautiful menu selections places this restaurant miles ahead of most Chinese take outs..
The menu is a traditional separation of soups, appetizers, pork, poultry, seafood, beef and vegetables with the addition of big bowl noodle soups, stir-fry noodles and a lovely sixteen item gourmet selection. If there is one know fear that I can help you overcome, it would be the pricing. Although a quick glance at the menu may give the impression of being pricey, the portion sizes, freshness and quality of the food supersede the increase of cost. At the Shanghai Gourmet you truly get what you pay for, and it is worth every penny.
The location of the restaurant gives local business workers a comfortable lunch experience with a reduced priced lunch-special menu for both dining in or to take out. The twelve different specials all start at $5.95 and are available Monday thru Saturday from 11:00am to 3:00pm. Each menu option comes with your choice of chicken, beef, pork or tofu. You can also substitute scallop or shrimp to any lunch choice for an additional dollar. Having ordered all of the South East Asian selections, I recommend the Sambal Chicken. A perfect balance of tender chicken, fresh herbs and vegetables, Sambal is best with steamed white rice and wonton soup; definitely a filling lunch for less than six dollars. If you’re looking for something less filling at an amazing price, try one of the small soups. Whether you select corn egg drop, wonton watercress or the amazing hot and sour soup at $1.50 you will not be disappointed.
Aside from the diverse menu, what really places this restaurant on top of my recommended list is the owners. More often than not you will find the Guo’s working in the restaurant from morning to night, with Winnie in the dining room and her husband/chef in the kitchen. What an amazing team they make, providing an incredible dining experience with tasty fresh ingredients, in a comfortable atmosphere and always service with a smile.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on February 26, 2008
Restaurant | "Texas Roadhouse - Revisited"
When a new restaurant opens, there are often little wrinkles, snags and tears in their fabric of daily operations. What makes a successful restaurant prosper is the fact that they can iron out the wrinkles and mend the tears. Any restaurant worth their salt, should know that it is the customer that makes them successful, not the restaurant itself; for if the customers don’t return what’s all the effort about? For those of you who read about our first visit to the Texas Roadhouse in West Haven, Connecticut, you would know that this restaurant definitely had it’s fair share of wrinkles, snags and tears.
But that is not what this review is all about; it’s about second chances and giving restaurants the opportunity to revive themselves on behalf of their customers. After the shameful service we received from the Texas Roadhouse we not only published our review on IGoUGo.com, but we wrote a letter to the Managing Partner, Eric Blanchard. After Mr. Blanchard received the letter he promptly telephoned me and offered his apologies for the ghastly experience we had with our first visit. Mr. Blanchard spent the whole of eleven minutes reviewing every detail of our experience for the improper glass used for my whiskey sour to the lackadaisical management style one of his junior managers exhibited when we notified him there was a bug in our food. In the end, Mr. Blanchard made an attempt to rectify the situation and invited us back to his restaurant and said that he would send out a voucher so this time dinner would be "on him". Sadly when I received this voucher for free dinner, it’s face value was only for only $30.
Personally I was insulted and wanted to return the voucher to Mr. Blanchard with a note asking him not to embarrass himself any further, but my wife (ever the optimist) wanted to utilize the $30 voucher and give the Texas Roadhouse one more opportunity on our son’s sixth birthday. We were both hoping that with another two months of experience under their belts, the restaurant would "wow" us and we would want to return again in the future.
We arrived at the restaurant a couple minutes before 5:00PM and found that there was already a twenty to thirty minute wait on a table for four. So once again we were given our pass and had to watch the "Now Serving" deli style sign to see when our table was ready. During our forty minute wait we had noticed that restaurant hadn’t changed, there were still peanut shell covering the floor and of course the dining room was full. There was a small army of employees ready to provide the utmost dining experience one could have in West Haven, but as we were being escorted to our table I couldn’t help but wonder why so many of the employees were just standing around line dancing. As we were passing one of the dancing deckhands, one of the girls nearly kicked my wife.
We were seated a corner booth table and were promptly greeted by our server, Tracie. It was rather hard to hear Tracie when she asked for our drink order due to the music being so loud and overpowering throughout the dining room. Once the music was turned down Tracie took our drink and starter order. Our first impression of Tracie wasn’t a good one, as she struggled with our question regarding a side salad on the kid’s menu. She also wasn’t much help with suggestive selling or recommending menu items, as I stammered in making my menu selections. However once the fog cleared, we realized that Tracie was a very attentive, returning to the table on numerous occasions to ensure we were satisfied with our meals.
The food, this time was served without insects, wasn’t as good as I had hoped it would be. The kids both ordered macaroni and cheese, which I was surprised, came from a box (Kraft) that was starchy and dry; not at all creamy like it is when we make it at home. The nice thing is that kids are easy to please and they had what they said was a good meal. My wife, wanting to take full advantage of the voucher only ordered the All-American Burger with fries. Aside from the medium burger being cooked rare, it was a good burger, but still only a good burger. I on the other hand wanted to experience the brand that this restaurant is known for: their steaks. Having already had the ribeye I thought I would attempt the 12oz. prime rib, rare. When the plate was served it was immediately apparent that the meat was under a heat lamp, but I was hungry and wasn’t going to complain again. More a medium than rare, the meat had the distinctive flavor of being wood smoked and in my opinion took away from the flavor of one of the best cuts of meat you can buy. My baked sweet potato was perfect (although it wasn’t served with whipped butter like it was last time) and the au jus was salty, as if it came from a package rather than from the meat itself. None the less, it was a decent meal and definitely lacked the "wow" factor we were hoping for.
With our appetites suppressed, we didn’t have anymore room for dessert and asked for our bill. We put our $30 voucher, Mr. Blanchard’s business card and our credit card into the check jacket and gave it back to the server. At this point I would have expected Mr. Blanchard, or one of his junior managers to come to the table as a follow up to the voucher, but no one came. Tracie simply removed the $30 from the total and returned the new slip for us to sign.
In conclusion I would rank the Texas Roadhouse as your typical chain restaurant where the only thing that matters is the profits shown on the bottom line. So what if we have upset one customer? We are packed and there is someone else to take his place. The service is adequate, the food is palatable and the management is corporate; only thinking about the numbers.
Would I return again? Maybe in another six months to a year to see if there have been any improvements. Until then I will drive the extra twenty minutes to a steakhouse in Shelton that knows all about good food, great service and has a management staff that understands the most important part of running a business: their customers!
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on April 13, 2008
Restaurant | "Carmen Anthony's - Just Fuel For The Body"
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on July 23, 2008
496 Chase Avenue
Restaurant | "Carmen Anthony - Just Fuel For The Body"
East Haven, Connecticut