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The Groton village of Noank may be small but it’s a major seafood destination. At Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough (117 Pearl St., 860/536-7719, abbotts-lobster.com), you’ll find incredibly fresh, simply cooked seafood in abundance in a clam-shack atmosphere with plenty of porch. Enjoy great views of Long Island Sound along with shrimp and roasted-corn chowder, lobster and crab rolls done either Connecticut- or Maine-style, lobster dinners up to ten pounds, and the New England Seafood Feast featuring clam chowder, shrimp in the rough, steamer clams and mussels, and a lobster. Print out a free clam chowder coupon from the website before you visit. You can even arrive by boat and tie up, but if you want to tie one on, remember it’s BYOB.
Somewhat easier to find is The Fisherman (Route 215, 860/536-1717, fishermanrestaurant.com), a popular seafood spot with a great deck overlooking Palmer’s Cove. More upscale in its aspirations, The Fisherman offers temptations like Native Clam Pan Roast, lobster cannelloni, a basil pesto shrimp pizzette, and Thai Red Curry and Coconut Sea Scallops, in addition to traditional standbys like clam chowder, lobster bisque, Connecticut-style lobster rolls and fish-and-chips.
To make our survey more manageable, we divide Mystic into its Groton and Stonington halves, which lie on either side of the Mystic River. On the Groton side, we recommend two popular eateries, one long established, the other a product of recent outside investment. Construction of the historic Captain Daniel Packer Inne (32 Water St., 860/536-3555, danielpacker.com) was completed in 1756. Packer, a former square-rigger captain, fed and lodged travelers, regaled them with tales of the high seas, and gave them crossing on his rope ferry. Located a stone’s throw from the water, the inn remained in the hands of the Packers and their descendants, the Keelers, until the 1970s, when it was purchased and beautifully restored by its current owners, Richard and Lulu Kiley. Seafood specialties include New England clam chowder, grilled mussels, scallops casino, lobster lollipops, truffled scallops and sesame-crusted yellowfin tuna. The food’s terrific and the atmosphere can’t be beat.
Also located on Water Street but opening some 255 years later is The Oyster Club (13 Water St., 860/415-9266, oysterclubct.com), a new addition from former French Culinary Institute classmates Jason Steadman and Daniel Meiser. Meiser helped open innovative Firebox in Hartford, and chef James Wayman comes to Mystic via River Tavern in Chester. This is a restaurant to watch, with a creative menu touting “food that travels the shortest distance from farm and sea to table.” Specials might include quahog chowder; sautéed soft-shell crab with greens, lemon and capers; Chinese BBQ squid with scallion, cilantro and toasted peanuts; seared scallops with red chili grits, sautéed spinach and brown sugar-caper butter; and pan-roasted swordfish with carrot purée, cranberry beans and Persian cress pesto.
The east side of the Mystic River also has many wonderful restaurants, but we will restrict ourselves to three. Located in the Whaler’s Inn about a block from the drawbridge is Carol Kanabis favorite BravoBravo (20 East Main St., 860/536-3228, bravobravoct.com). Perhaps more than anyone, Kanabis, who also also owns Azu in Mystic and Olio in Groton, should be credited for recognizing the year-round restaurant potential of the area. This charming bistro offers elegant Italian-accented seafood and pastas, including Cajun BBQ Shrimp over polenta, champagne risotto with lobster and asparagus, lobster ravioli in a lobster chive sauce, and seafood stew over linguine.
While BravoBravo lacks views of the water, elevated Flood Tide in The Inn at Mystic (3 Williams Ave., 860/536-8140, floodtiderestaurant.com) looks out across pretty Pequotsepos Cove. Seafood options abound, including a lobster Madeira crêpe, award-winning New England clam chowder, bouillabaisse, fish-and-chips, cumin-dusted sea scallops, and barbecue-rubbed cedar plank salmon.
People reacted as if the sky was falling when word got out that Kitchen Little in the Mystic River Marina (36 Quarry Rd., 860/536-2122, kitchenlittle.org) would lose its prominent roadside spot just upriver from Mystic Seaport. (No hue and cry like that had been heard since O’Rourke’s Diner burned in Middletown.) Well, the good news is, Kitchen Little has reopened in the Mystic River Marina and has lovely water views from its second-floor dining room and porch. The bad news is, it’s not quite as convenient or easy to find. But we’re guessing the space will happily exchange the hordes of tourists who used to drop by for a steadier diet of locals and yachters.
Kitchen Little built its reputation as a breakfast and lunch destination. Popular seafood items include the Mystic Melt, scrambled eggs with fresh lump crab and cream cheese; a Rhode Island-style clam chowder that was featured in Gourmet magazine, fresh-lobster rolls; Bomster scallop rolls; fish sandwiches; and lump crab sandwiches. More good news: Kitchen Little now takes credit cards and, as we went to press, was contemplating opening for dinner and serving beer and wine.
Historic Stonington Borough is home to a handful of interesting eateries, including delightful Noah’s and Water Street Café, but we’re focusing on the two most seafaring of them. Dog Watch Café in Dodson Boatyard (194 Water St., 860/415-4510, dogwatchcafe.com), a relative newcomer, already offers unparalleled conviviality along with sublime sunsets and tasty victuals. Signature items include Ahi Tuna Tempura with a Trio of Sauces, fried calamari salad, Maine-style lobster rolls, whole belly clams, and the self-proclaimed “best bouillabaisse in America.”
Toward the southern end of the street, there’s Skipper’s Dock (66 Water St., 860/535-0111, skippersdock.com), established in 1929. As its name implies, it’s actually located over the water. Crowds come for seafood fare like bouillabaisse, Cajun-grilled shrimp, lobster salad sliders, mussels Provençale, stuffed Stonington quahogs, coquille Saint-Jacques, lobsters from the tank and oven-roasted striped bass.
Our last stop is Pawcatuck, that Stonington village that cozies right up against Westerly, R.I. There aren’t a lot of dining options here, but a nice one is Prime Time Café (1 West Broad St., 860/599-3840, ptcafe.com), which abuts the Pawcatuck River that separates Connecticut from Rhode Island. Last summer Hurricane Irene closed Prime Time Café for more than two weeks, but fortunately it escaped extensive damage. Unafraid of flavor, the local fave features intriguing seafood offerings such as skewered prosciutto-wrapped scallops with Grand Marnier sauce, Chesapeake crab cakes with a chile corn relish and chipotle rémoulade, grilled tuna au poivre in an orange cumin sauce, crab-stuffed flounder in a hazelnut cream sauce and oyster stew.
At night, from out front of Prime Time Café, one can actually see the magenta lights that illuminate Bridge Restaurant as it hangs out over the Pawcatuck in Westerly. (When it was Three Fish years ago, it was helmed by talented Connecticut chef Jack Flaws.)
But the state line is where we turn back.