On Friday night, Noe and I made plans with my favorite "foodie friend", Loree. Loree introduced me to what has become my favorite restaurant in Connecticut, the River Tavern. We've been on a mission to get Noe out there for awhile, but it hadn't worked so far. However, all the cards lined up on Friday night, and we met Loree in Chester (about half an hour from New London) at 5:45.
The River Tavern door - all photos by Loree Borgoin
The River Tavern is a very small restaurant with a warm decor (a lot of yellow and red). When you reserve a table for dinner (and because it is so small, I would recommend doing so if you plan to go there on a weekend) they block that table off for two hours - they believe in enjoying your food at a relaxed pace rather than rushing through your dinner. The restaurant was opened in 2001 by Jonathan Rapp. The kitchen is currently presided over by co-executive chefs Chris Flahaven and James Wayman (Jim Morrison, formerly of Thames River Wine and Spirits, put me on to James). The kitchen's focus is "simple, delicious cooking" always using fresh ingredients (local ingredients whenever possible).
We decided to start our meal with cocktails. The River Tavern has a unique, wide-ranging wine list, and I knew I would want a glass with dinner. For an apertif, however, we selected drinks from the innovative cocktail menu (River Tavern cocktails are delicious - not only are they well-crafted but they are made with quality liquors and fresh-squeezed juices. I chose the Ginger Blossom, a delightful concoction of white rum, fresh ginger juice, and honey, shaken with ice and strained into a martini glass. The bite of the ginger was tempered slightly but not totally mellowed by the honey - spectacular.
We decided to order an appetizer while we sipped our cocktails. Loree pointed out a squid dish, sauteed with green chiles. That sounded fine to me and Noe. We weren't disappointed. Sauteed squid can be rubbery if overcooked, but this was nice and tender. The chiles gave the slightly sweet squid a hint of heat. This dish was a great alternative to the usual fried calamari you see on so many menus.
It was a bit harder to decide on our entrees - all three of us were debating between two or three different dishes. Ultimately, Loree chose some Sicilian-inspired scallops, sauteed with squid and tomatoes and served over polenta. Noe gave in to his first impulse, the Tavern Burger - a patty of local Four Mile River Farm beef served up with onions, bacon (thick-cut, delicious bacon), aged cheddar, and house-made ketchup. I went for pan-fried skate with warm lentils, bacon, and arugula.
Loree's scallops with polenta
The skate was amazing - lightly fried so the outside was browned, it flaked immediately when grazed with a fork. (For those who have never had skate, the texture and the flavor remind me of a firmer white fish.) The warm lentils gave it a little bit of heartiness. The whole thing was infused with flavor from the tick-cut chunks of bacon (this bacon was glorious) and topped with arugula, finishing off the dish with an interesting hint of bitterness.
I loved every bite.
Pan-fried skate with lentils, bacon, and arugula
I managed to snag a bite of Loree's scallops, which were also perfectly cooked and delicious, but Noe's burger disappeared so fast I barely saw it, let alone got to try it. He gave it a rave review, noting that the meat was moist but the burger was not overflowing with juices and soaking the bun like some burgers he has eaten. (He also put in a request that I start seeking out Four Mile River Farm beef from the local farmers markets.)
The Tavern Burger
We were all pretty full, but we couldn't resist the idea of dessert. We settled on vanilla bean creme brulee. It came to the table ungarnished. This creme brulee needed no additional presentation. The caramelized top was nice and crisp and cracked when tapped sharply with a spoon. Underneath, the warm custard tasted of real vanilla. It was decadent without being heavy - the perfect ending to our meal.
Noe and I crack the crust
Noe agreed with me and Loree - the River Tavern is more than worth the drive to Chester. The food is uncomplicated, but sophisticated. It's simple and fresh, well thought out and carefully prepared. I'm glad we managed to convert Noe - maybe now that he is a fan, I will get to eat there more often!