Latitude 41º, Mystic
More often than not, restaurants in places like Mystic Seaport, Williamsburg and Sturbridge Village are chosen for where they are, not what they are. As such, their challenges and opportunities are unique and their mission specific: Please everybody!
But “everybody” is from everywhere: A middle-of-the-road menu is virtually dictated: Not too cutting-edge. Not too old-fashioned. Not too salty, not too spicy, not too ethnic, not too anything. And no peanuts.
Daunting, yes, but in an economic downturn what restaurateur would not be grateful for tour groups by the busload and the assurance of a busy dining room, at least on holiday weekends? Not to mention the benefit of customers in a happy vacation mood.
Latitude 41º, formerly Seamen’s Inne, is a case in point. Owned by Mystic Seaport and located on the riverfront grounds of the historic seaport restoration with plenty of parking across the way, the idea of it is pretty much what a footsore tourist with a couple of kids in tow and a yen for a dry martini has in mind. Alas, reality differs.
I discovered as much on a recent Sunday night when I set off with three of my jolliest, most understanding friends, determined to enjoy whatever Latitude 41º had to offer. My trepidation was due to the fact that the restaurant is on its second chef since opening in April. But that could and should be all to the good. Also on the plus side were extensive renovations—new flooring, lighting, furniture—that we had plenty of time to admire while waiting in line behind 14 other would-be diners with reservations. From time to time, a young beauty flew by, frowning—“Be with you in a moment.” But she wasn’t.
When we were finally seated, service was chaotic. Although the dining room was not full, there were interminable waits between courses. Tom’s soup got cold before he could acquire a spoon. When our main courses arrived, there was no place to put them because our appetizers had not been cleared. Enough said. We made do. I borrowed Rosemary’s knife, we reused our bread plates for sharing and turned our attention to the food.
To begin on a high note, an appetizer of Wagyu beef carpaccio was striking to look at, wrapped in overlapping pink slices around arugula moistened with truffle aioli. It was so delicious I hated to part with a smidgen, but there was plenty to share. It was a bit pricey at $14, but so good it was almost a bargain. Gnocchi with wild mushrooms in sherry butter also cost $14, which is a lot for a miniportion of pasta, but the dish won us over: tender, flavorful gnocchi, some but not enough wild mushrooms lightly cooked so that they kept their forest-rich taste, a glisten of sherry butter. Lovely.
But Maryland crab hush puppies were a flop, heavily deep-fried, cottony and dry inside. Butternut squash bisque was an odd brownish color and tasted of nothing.
“Butter Braised Lobster (Stonington, CT)” promised a lot. What we got—for $31—was a few scraps of lobster, overcooked and oversalted, mixed with a ton of cavatelli and a few chanterelles moistened with “lobster tarragon butter.” Sprinkling the mix with fresh tarragon sounds like a nice touch but it overwhelmed the taste of the lobster.
Tom’s “Grilled Atlantic Swordfish (Montauk, NY)” was fresh and high-quality, but overcooked, juiceless and underseasoned. Tom asked for tartar sauce, then ignored it—the waiter had brought him horseradish. A codfish entrée was a felicitous combination of a swiftly pan-seared fillet and a plump, tasty codfish cake. Pea tendrils in truffle vinaigrette were perfect with it. Skate wings, the delicate fish falling away in silky flakes, scrupulously boneless, with a golden tinge of brown butter from the pan, were gracefully enhanced with baby shiitake mushrooms, toasted hazelnuts and creamy polenta.
Desserts were hefty, homey and house-made. Gingerbread cheesecake—heavy and sweet, blanketed with fresh whipped cream and served with a ginger cookie—was too much for us to manage more than a forkful. The cookie was burned on the underside. “Peaches and Cream,” a whimsical combination of olive oil cake, whipped goat cheese and roasted peaches, was lighter, which we appreciated—a happy surprise. But the fruit cobbler let us down, mixed berries in sweet goop served cold under a flabby crust.
But stop the presses, we were not to be sent unrewarded into the dark night. Thank you, Hosmer Mountain Soda (in Willimantic), for putting an old-fashioned soda fountain in a bottle so we could have a ball slurping black- cherry soda poured over brownies and vanilla gelato. Eight giggly little girls celebrating a birthday at the next table were slurping away, too. We toasted each other.
With so much going for it (new management, spacious, newly refurbished premises, a reliable customer base and location, location, location), Latitude 41º could be better. Maybe it doesn’t need to be, but I can’t help wishing that it were.
105 Greenmanville Ave., Mystic (860/572-5303)
Open Tuesday through Thursday 11:30 to 9, Friday and Saturday till 10, Sunday 11:30 to 9. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $7 to $14, entrées $22 to $34, desserts $7 to $9.