Terra Mar Grille, Old Saybrook


★★★ (Superior)

Family-owned, with a star-studded history (Frank Sinatra slept here, the movie Parrish starring Claudette Colbert was filmed here), Saybrook Point Inn has character but wears it casually over the shoulder, greeting each day, week, era with the freshness of a new wind on the foresail.

Since the Tagliatela family handed the helm to son Steve a while back, the inn, marina, spa and restaurant at Saybrook Point have more than kept pace with the times. 

The marina has become the greenest in the nation, achieving first place in a national competition for ecological sensitivity. The restaurant (christened Terra Mar in the days when it was fashionable to give restaurants and hotels names like Bella Vista and Mon Repose) is on the leading edge of the farm-to-chef movement, sourcing ingredients conscientiously and preparing them in healthy ways that let the natural goodness shine through. Often the simplest dishes astound. When and where have we had Bibb lettuce so dewy and tender, swordfish so pristine, goat cheese so mild yet earthy?  

The summer menu struck me as a perfect compendium of what we like to eat after an active day on land and especially at sea. Most of the yachtsmen I know are, in a pinch, good short-order cooks. What they want when they come ashore is a change from one-pot galley food. Often they look for salads because greens are hard to keep aboard.

The night we visited, Terra Mar proffered three salads. We ordered two. Organic Bibb salad made with lettuce from Two Guys from Woodridge Farm blew me away. I could have eaten these sweet buttery leaves undressed, but Terra Mar did them proud with crumbled Vermont goat cheese, toasted pecans, paper-thin slices of Anjou pear and orange vinaigrette. The second salad consisted of mixed field greens from Starlight Gardens in Durham, apples, candied walnuts, Danish blue cheese and poppy-seed vinaigrette.

Back to boaters, skippers and crew. On shore leave, they lean toward dishes with multiple ingredients and complex sauces that are a lot of trouble to make. Terra Mar's veal chop elaborately garnished and sauced is a good example.

But for a galley chef, even something simple like a lobster roll is a treat. A cinch to put together with one hand on the rail? Not really. Sure, you could buy a lobster, cook it, crack it, pick it, sauté it and plop it on a bun, but it's messy work and if you don't scrub up like crazy afterward you risk-horror of horrors-a smelly boat. Better to ensconce yourself on Terra Mar's patio, grab the lounge menu and order lobster rolls all around.

If you're doing the sit-down dinner thing in the dining room and ask politely, you may be able to get them to bring a lobster roll or two for the table to share as an appetizer. Pure, unadulterated lobster, swimming in butter, sinking into a sinfully sodden white frankfurter bun-the glory of the Connecticut shore. But save room for Terra Mar's lobster bisque, intense and rich with brandy and tarragon and rivulets of sherry cream. Baked Brie is good here, too, a delicate version consisting of a single slice of cheese, gently warmed and topped with diced pear, ginger and toasted almonds.

Which brings us to the aforementioned veal chop, a 12-ounce beauty robed in dark, wildly flavorful sauce described as "cognac cherry demiglace." The meat was moist and tender, the sauce irresistible, and there was a tangle of spring vegetables and a triangular cake of polenta to balance the richness.

The inn's signature dish is cioppino made with shrimp, Stonington scallops (which really are the world's best), mussels and calamari. In a lobster-and-saffron-scented broth, Amalfi coast meets Connecticut shore.

The night we visited, the entrée special was sesame-encrusted white sea bass, which we loved. Served with green tea soba noodles, bok choy and seaweed salad, with grapefruit beurre blanc, it was a refreshing departure from New England fare.

And so were the desserts. Both the blueberry panna cotta and the Key lime mousse were intensely true to the flavor of the fruit. A chocolate mousse pyramid was glazed with dark chocolate and served with a brilliant raspberry sorbet. But for a polite chocolate orgy, go for the chocolate mousse with hints of caramel over a caramel pecan tart. 

And don't forget to admire the boats-galore-in-the-water view.

Terra Mar Grille
Saybrook Point Inn & Spa, 2 Bridge St., Old Saybrook (860/395-2000)

Lunch Monday through Friday 11 to 2, Saturday noon to 2. Dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 9:30, Friday and Saturday till 10:00. Sunday brunch 11 to 2, dinner 5:30 to 9:30. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $8 to $14, entrées $26 to $40 (lobster), desserts $8 to $9.

Terra Mar Grille, Old Saybrook

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