Saltwater Grille, Stamford
★★ (Very Good)
Real estate's golden rule-location, location, location-applies to restaurants, too, but as stock offerings dutifully remind, it is no guarantee of future performance. 183 Harbor Drive in Stamford is a case in point. A large, modern building directly on the waterfront overlooking a classy marina filled with pleasure craft, condos and office buildings all around and tons of parking-it's a natural for a restaurant. So thought the Rusty Scupper, then Beacon, then Shore House. Each opened and closed in short order. Ours not to reason why, but to wait a bit before reviewing the next player.
At an opening cocktail party I checked out the premises. Press releases touted the sophisticated decor but I found it a tad hard to warm up to-cement foyer, metal railings, warehouselike spaces, nothing soft or pretty anywhere, but hey, this is 2008 and OMG there's that view of Stamford Harbor and boats so close you could supervise their docking without leaving your table on the open-air deck. Who could ask for more? Not me. I'm a sailor, a swimmer, a water person from way back, so Saltwater Grille went on my to-do list with an asterisk: *Hope for good weather.
No such luck. It was raining and blowing like stink, as we sailors say, on the Saturday night my friends and I turned up to sample the fare. Whether to dine indoors or out was a no-brainer. Not to worry, the dining room is on two levels, both affording an almost unobstructed water view. The bar area, big, blatantly informal, occupies the back of the house. (But then, when did "the scene" require a view?) The dining room, cavernous but comfortable, was trim and shipshape with white tablecloths and a full complement of glass and silverware.
The minute we sat down, a plate of gou-gères was set before us. Usually the size of a silver dollar, these cheese-flavored pastries were big, fluffy puffs, almost four inches across and an inch-and-a-half high. Of course, there's only air inside, I told myself, as I finished one and reached for a second, demolishing my vow to settle for a nibble.
Our waitress, who hails from Slovenia, was brisk, efficient, and quick to anticipate what we might need or want to know. So I can tell you that the crab cocktail was made with Jonah crab, au naturel, laid out on a flat plate. Traditionally, Jonah crab is served with a mayonnaise-type sauce spiked with Dijon mustard. Saltwater Grille's crab cocktail came with two sauces: horseradish sauce, which dealt a knock-out blow to the delicate flavor of the crab, and your usual red cocktail sauce, which tasted like your usual red cocktail sauce. If I were you, I'd give both sauces a pass and ask for mayonnaise and mustard.
Onion soup was more successful, an intense dark broth, thick with caramelized onions and floating "Grûyère croutons" in need of more cheese and/or a smidgen of salt.
It's a mistake to order a dish because you take a fancy to one of its ingredients. But one succumbs. Candied pistachios? Clever idea. Intrigued, I ordered Saltwater Grille's romaine pistachio salad, which turned out to be a pleasant mélange of greens and goat cheese with candied pistachios in such short supply they contributed almost nothing. Just an occasional jolt of sweetness like biting down on a gritty chip of rock candy. Not a disaster, just a design flaw, easy to repair-and we had yet to taste the stars of the appetizer show.
Saltwater Grille's lobster fritters put fried anything, even tempura, in the shade-piping hot, light as a seagull feather, lush with lobster. Melt in the mouth? I refuse to say it, but they did, they do.
Another star wowed us as well. A trio of sliders-miniature tuna, lobster and Wagyu beef burgers with buns to match-each miniburger best of show.
Hard acts to follow but every entrée we sampled earned its keep. Grilled tuna steak, nicely rimmed with crushed peppercorns, rare as ordered, sparkled with freshness. With it was house-made spaetzle as tender and tasty as any in Austria. Ignore the garnish of tempura asparagus-Asians do it better. But don't miss stuffed trout as a main. I'm leery of stuffings, which can be mushy or overloaded with starchy fillers. At Saltwater Grille, the trout was merely slit, boned and folded over small whole shrimp, slender French green beans and sliced black mushrooms.
Because there's a landlubber in every crowd, we broke ranks to try the rack of lamb. Four thick, tender chops medium-rare as ordered surprised us with the exotic intermingling flavors of Moroccan spices with which the lamb was glazed. Chilled couscous salad was interesting alongside.
The most dramatic entrée was the special: New England bouillabaisse-a big white china bowl filled with steaming broth, in which fish (catch of the day), fingerling potatoes, tomatoes and celery luxuriated, while half a lobster flaunted its scarlet beauty on top. A bargain at $32.
Desserts were of the big-bang variety-involving ice cream, whipped cream, fudge sauce, caramel and oh, well-what the hell- a cherry on top. Departing from that formula was a crustless, mousselike banana pie that elicited a chorus of sighs and, my favorite, a strawberry-rhubarb cobbler that made me think of my mother-in-law's rhubarb patch in Chatham by the sea. Not a bad thought on a rainy night in the Saltwater Grille with the wind rattling the rigging outside and a spot of espresso coming up.
Coda: On a return visit, appetizers were as good as before, but our entrées were disappointing. Halibut with mushroom ragu came on a plate bare of anything but a pool of thin, mushroom-flecked white sauce, and instead of the thick, juicy lamb chops we remembered (a $32 entrée), we got six tiny "lollipop" chops, trimmed to bare bone for eating by hand. I suspect they ran out of lamb rack and raided the bar-snack supply.
Why? Well, it was Monday, and although the restaurant was full of diners, the kitchen was probably not full of chefs. My advice: Don't go on Monday, and hope for the best.
183 Harbor Dr., Stamford (203/391-6500)
Lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 to 4:30. Dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 10:30, Friday and Saturday till 11. Sunday brunch 11:30 to 3:30, dinner 5 to 10. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $9 to $16, entrées $17 to $45 (clam bake with lobster), desserts $8 to $12.Saltwater Grille, Stamford