The Mill on the River, South Windsor
The Mill on the River ★★ (Very Good)
It's Sunday night, usually the second-slowest night of the week for a special-occasion, scenic-destination restaurant, especially in the off-season, yet the Mill on the River's parking lot is full and because we are early for our reservation we have to wait for a table. What gives? A wedding, perhaps? No sign of one.
We're here for the "Complete dinner specials offered on Sunday and Monday for $22.00 per person." Evidently we're not the only ones looking for an affordable way to dine out with family and friends.
A beautiful medium-rare prime rib goes by. We check the dinner specials. It's on the list, with baked potato and vegetables. We're tempted but decide not to order it because lots of restaurants offer prime rib specials on various nights of the week. And what intrigues us, in fact what brought us out on this wintry night, is the number (11) and variety of entrées listed on the specially priced dinner menu-beef, pork, chicken, pasta, fish and shellfish, prepared in interesting ways. A case in point is "Redfish Nouvelle," the restaurant's signature dish, which of course we have to have.
Blackened with a snappy but not fiery blend of spices, the fish is perfectly cooked and served on a bed of spinach, topped with shrimp and scallops and bathed in a light and silky Mornay sauce. Before we can dig in, two side dishes are set down: rice pilaf and a zesty coleslaw we're told the restaurant is famous for. We're beginning to get the message. The complete dinner specials comprise a sampling of the restaurant's brightest and best dishes, with no stinting.
For starters, there's a choice of salad or soup of the day. Today's soup, dubbed minestrone, is a tasty broth thick with greens, which, unlike heftier versions with potato and beans, is a pleasant, not-too-filling introduction to a meal. Oddly, there is only one surcharge on the menu: butternut squash soup costs $1.75 extra. Thick and creamy but also lustily flavorful and very sweet, it's a house favorite. My tablemates like it too, but for my taste it's sweet enough to serve as dessert.
Like the "Redfish Nouvelle," penne ala vodka is attractively presented, nestled at the bottom of an oversize bowl, gilded but not drowning in a sprightly vodka-spiked fresh tomato sauce. The Mill on The River makes its own pasta and garnishes it lavishly, in this instance with diced chicken, pancetta, escarole, baby spinach and shaved Parmesan. The mélange is delicious, and is bounteous enough for four of us to taste and still have some left for tomorrow's lunch.
Who says economizing can't be fun? Sometimes, however, it means doing without expensive fish like wild salmon, but here it is at the top of the specials list. I order it and when it comes I kick myself for not specifying medium-rare. Most of the regulars like their fish fully cooked, I'm told. The salmon, however, is wonderfully fresh and carefully served piping-hot. It comes with an excellent Yukon Gold potato purée and snap peas covered with a wildly sweet glaze. Again, too sweet for me. They're also stringy and tough.
But all is forgiven when the bargain of the century and star of the show, the broiled fisherman's platter, sails in. The menu describes this dish as "an assortment of two pounds of our freshest seafood," eliciting, I confess, skepticism and facetious speculation on the part of my unruly pals. "Maybe it's mostly sea scallops weighed in their shells."
Oh, we of little faith. What arrives is a boatload of ocean-fresh fish: redfish and cod broiled in butter, sea scallops under a dusting of golden-brown seasoned crumbs, tender-crisp, sweet-tasting shrimp and a handful of cherrystone clams, laid out on an oval platter. At the price, it's worth a trip from anywhere.
Another inducement is a chance to enjoy an excellent bottle of wine for $25-bin ends, samples of which are on display inside the front door. We spot a Sanford Pinot Noir 2006 we can't resist. It's as good as we expect, pairing well with the richly sauced redfish, the penne and the elaborate desserts that Rachel, our waitress, enthusiastically recites. "Apple strudel, apple bread pudding, neapolitan, chocolate chip and macadamia nut cookies-all made right here in our bakery."
Four of us, four desserts. It's a match. We order one of each. I've had so many lackluster strudels, I am amazed at how good this one is. A thick layer of caramelized apples, paper-thin layers of pastry, freshly baked, fragrant, a strudel worthy of its Viennese fame. Apple bread pudding is almost as good, a cozy, satisfying taste of old-time home cooking. The neapolitan, an airy confection of sweetened whipped cream, custard and pastry, is a bit like Paris Brest, the time-honored dessert created by a French pastry chef in honor of a bicycle race between Paris and Brest.
As delightful as these are, we totally lose our hearts to three big fat cookies, unmistakably homemade, endearingly lopsided, filling the air with their just-baked fragrance. They're so fresh they fall apart and stain our fingers with melting chocolate when we pick them up.
It's bitter cold outside and there's a light dusting of snow but we're no longer surprised to see so many people here. Obviously, getting more and paying less is beginning to look pretty good.
989 Ellington Rd., South Windsor (860/289-7929)
Lunch Monday through Thursday 11:30 to 2. Dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 9:30, Friday and Saturday till 10. Sunday brunch 11 to 2, dinner 3 to 8:30. Major credit cards. Price range: Sunday and Monday prix fixe $22. Tuesday through Saturday: appetizers $5 to $14, entrées $19 to $27, desserts $5.95.The Mill on the River, South Windsor