Fresh Salt, Saybrook Point Inn & Spa, Old Saybrook
★★½ (Very Good-Superior)
In addition to one of the loveliest locations on Long Island Sound, The Inn at Saybrook Point has a lot going for it, most notably the fact that over the years it has repeatedly taken bold steps to remain relevant. The marina is state-of-the-art, the inn is a thoroughly modern hostelry—and now a new restaurant has breezed in to shake up the dining scene.
No cogs in a megabuck hotel chain, both inn and restaurant are family-owned and as such have a refreshing warmth and directness.
Why “Fresh Salt”? “Our tables overlook the waters of the Connecticut River where the fresh river meets the salt of the Sound.”
True enough and delightful in summer, but Fresh Salt in its new configuration is especially cozy in the winter, when you can eat, drink and be merry in beautiful wood-paneled rooms at a table in front of the fire, in a comfy booth or at a table facing a window wall with a sweeping water view.
Fresh Salt doesn’t call itself a seafood restaurant but it might well do so. Except for a smidgen of prosciutto and sopressata (the chef’s Italian), there are only four non-seafood preparations on the dinner menu: roast chicken, strip steak, filet mignon and rack of lamb (two thick, juicy chops, red-wine-glazed and served with an improbable but wildly delicious “parmesan polenta spaetzle, shiitake mushroom goat cheese casserole”).
For seafood, Fresh Salt flings a wide net. The night we were there the raw bar featured plump, clean-tasting oysters from Mayflower Point near Dennis on Cape Cod, sweet briny WiAnnos, Long Island Bluepoints and Narragansett mussels. The lineup was so alluring I had fantasies of ordering a magnum of Champagne and spending the evening slurping bivalves.
But I pricked up my ears when our waitress rhapsodized over the lobster wontons. We ordered them, and . . . let’s just call it a false start because much of what followed was laudable. The wontons were not. Far from China’s traditionally delicate tidbits “to touch the heart,” these triangles of dough were large, heavy and almost too tough to cut with the side of a fork.
But a luscious appetizer of chilled Maine lobster tail, wonderfully fresh and sweet, turned the tide. It was smooth sailing after that. “Scallop ceviche,” a pleasant surprise, starred a single sea scallop in a citrusy marinade, and oven-roasted oysters were pearls of flavor laced with lemon under a drizzle of panko crumbs.
Only two salads are listed on the dinner menu: arugula with cherry tomatoes and Bibb lettuce with pears. Both are garnished with almonds and shavings of Pyrenees mountain goat cheese so rich, sharp, earthy and sweet you can almost hear tinkling goat bells in the pure alpine air.
While individual ingredients were allowed to shine on their own as appetizers, it was with the entrées—complex compositions each garnished differently—that chef Carlos Cassar’s real creativity came into play. Wild salmon was pan-roasted medium-rare, topped with pistachio arugula pesto and daringly served piping hot in a sea of chilled cucumber gazpacho. Odd, but oh, my.
Seared Stonington scallops sailed in on a tasty bed of mango-flavored couscous garnished with alfalfa and saffron aioli. Ginger-roasted-cauliflower-and-peach salad struck us all as a wonderful way to embellish yellowfin tuna. Fire-eaters might say the dish was light on the wasabi mentioned on the menu, but it was so good it was hard to quibble.
The most interesting thing on the menu was a swordfish chop. I ordered it immediately because I’d never tasted one—although the cut is legendary. It won an Iron Chef award a while ago and a few years back David Burke served it as “prime rib of swordfish.” A hefty chunk of fish cut from the collarbone of a large swordfish and served on the bone, it looks like a club Fred Flintstone might like to get his hands on. With only two chops per fish, a swordfish chop is a rare delicacy and Fresh Salt’s did it justice, grilling it to juicy perfection and displaying it in all its glory alongside a colorful roasted eggplant-tomato-zucchini-and-clam ragout.
The nice thing about a seafood meal is how light it can be when it’s not deep-fried, creamed, breaded or buried under a mountain of french fries.
At Fresh Salt you can even navigate the shoals of dessert without double-decadent damage. Skip the too-heavy chocolate bread pudding and go for the Key lime tart with fresh strawberries, passion fruit sorbet or the blueberry crumble made with both cultivated and wild blueberries. There’s also a fluffy charlotte-type confection billed as strawberry “trifle” that my tradition-loving English friends might not recognize. But ’tis the season to be jolly, so hang the holly and trifle with the trifle, enjoy the holidays and have a happy new year.
Saybrook Point Inn & Spa
2 Bridge St., Old Saybrook (860/388-1111, freshsalt.net)
Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 to 2, Sunday 12 to 2:30. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 6 to 9, Friday till 9:30, Saturday till 10. Sunday brunch 11 to 2. Major credit cards. Wheelchair access. Price range: appetizers $7 to $19, entrées $24 to $34, desserts $8 to $9.