Dog Watch Café, Stonington

 
Duck salad, with apples, walnuts and raspberry vinaigrette, at Dog Watch Café.

Duck salad, with apples, walnuts and raspberry vinaigrette, at Dog Watch Café.

Ryan Lavine

Dog Watch Café ★★ 1/2 (Very Good-Superior)

Blue-water sailors, cruising yachtsmen and itinerant crew drink elbow to elbow at Stonington’s new Dog Watch Café as if it had been there forever. After all, they’ve been fetching up at convivial little watering holes just like it in the Caribbean, the Balearics and the Greek Isles for years. In fact, co-owner Clay Burkhalter got the idea for Dog Watch at a sailors’ bar in the Azores, during a layover in the 2007 minitransit race from France to Brazil. Burkhalter, single-handing a 21-footer called Arcadia, placed 12th out of 87 boats—the fifth American ever to even finish. Before the race, Burkhalter, who grew up in Stonington, says that he and his eventual co-owner David Eck joked about opening a sailors’ bar in Stonington “if I made it to Brazil and was not lost at sea.” 

Arcadia was actually built at Stonington’s Dodson’s Boatyard, so perhaps it was fate that Dog Watch was able to find a home there, directly on the harbor where Boom used to be, with boats so close you can practically touch them and masts silhouetted against spectacular sunsets. For those of us who favor grub and grog liberally laced with the romance of the sea, Dog Watch is precisely where and what it should be.

Half the world seems to agree. Dog Watch has been packed since it opened last summer. Tables are close together, the noise level rises all evening, music kicks in when the sun goes down, and the food is just what’s wanted after a day on the water.  
Watch Hill oysters, federally trademarked, are Rhode Island’s pride and joy. And they couldn’t be fresher. Oh, that taste of iron and brine, brisk as a breeze off the deep-water jetty. We order three apiece and swear we could eat a ton. Then there are Bomster scallops. A cult of devotees says they are the best in the world, and I am ready to state unequivocally that they are the best I have ever eaten. Pulled from the briny deep by the Bomster family, Stonington scallopers for 30 years, these creamy, half-dollar-sized bivalves owe their delicious taste and texture to the fact that fresh water, ice and phosphates never touch them. They go straight from ocean floor to trawler deck, where a state-of-the-art freezer locks out contaminants and seals in flavor. Bill Bomster developed the process and the family controls every step of the business, from ship to restaurant or store. Dog Watch, a stone’s throw from the source, prepares them with respect and restraint, in garlic wine butter with a drift of panko crumbs. Bored with sea scallops you may be, but order these.

At Dog Watch the bread is good, hot sourdough. Yes, the butter pat is foil-wrapped, but we’re in picnic mode. The vibe is casual, come-as-you-are. Flip-flops or Top-Siders. Shorts are okay. So is a sundress and diamonds if you’re so inclined. The mix is characteristic and the menu reflects it. Burgers and pizzas and chicken tenders share the honors with bouillabaisse, roasted cod, grilled swordfish and fettuccine Alfredo. We pick and choose from all categories.

The crab cake is better than some we’ve had but nowhere near as good as the Chesapeake’s. A stuffed mushroom is unexpectedly winsome, topped with crabmeat and Manchego béchamel. Prince Edward Island mussels, however, disappoint. You get a big bowl of them for $11, but the bivalves are too tiny to be succulent. Duck salad, on the other hand, delights us with lots of lovely pale pink slices of seared Long Island duck breast, served over mixed greens, walnuts and apples with a raspberry vinaigrette. My only quibble: Thick slices of unpeeled cucumber, raw onion and shredded carrots overwhelm the greenery, making the salad component of this dish a bit of a chore to eat. 

Bouillabaisse is a specialty of the house.We order it and love it. A clean, fresh, New Englandy bouillabaisse (as opposed to a spicy New Orleans extravaganza), it consists of fish and shellfish simmered (but not overcooked) in a light, saffron-scented fresh-tomato-and-fish broth. At $14, it’s a bargain. If you’re feeling expansive, you can have it with a lobster tail. Add $8.

The best swordfish you’ll ever eat is one you catch yourself, and while Connecticut may not be an exotic sportfishing paradise, its charter boats do produce fish. Off Long Island Sound, way out where offshore game fish abound, they catch marlin, they catch tuna, they catch swordfish, so if you don’t hook one of your own, Stonington’s commercial fishing fleet will provide. At Dog Watch the swordfish is as good as I expect it to be—and lily-gilded with lemon shallot butter and crabmeat.

Roasted cod, lightly seasoned, is equally appealing. Mahimahi, one of the recited specials, is, of course, not locally caught, but it tastes as fresh as if it were. Fresh fish is definitely the Dog Watch Café’s strong suit.

Desserts are not. Few are house-made, and the most highly touted—Ann Pearce’s “Death by Chocolate,” involving chocolate pudding, chocolate crème, Heath Bar crunch, whipped cream and multicolored M&Ms—is awful. Unless you’re a 5-year-old. Lemon pie with a shortbread crust is somewhat better but tastes commercial. Chocolate fudge cake is heavy as lead. But one dessert redeems all. Don’t leave without trying the Dog Watch Flute, lemon gelatin swirled together with limoncello presented in a champagne glass that is yours to keep.

Dog Watch is clearly the pride and joy of its seafaring owners. They’ve spiffed it up, filled it with nautical memorabilia and added a waterside deck for atmospheric sundowners.

Incidental marine intelligence: The “dog watch” is a term that has been used on ships since the 18th century. It refers to dividing the evening watch into two watches in order to feed the crew. In short, a shortened watch. 

Dog Watch Café
194 Water St., Stonington (860/415-4510)

Lunch and dinner daily 11:30 to 10. Major credit cards. Wheelchair access. Price range: appetizers $3.50 to $13, entrées $14 to $24, desserts $5.

Dog Watch Café, Stonington

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