Chaplin's, New London
Chaplin’s ★★ (Very Good)
Talk about history! New London’s sea saga out-swashbuckles Pirates of the Caribbean. George Washington may or may not have slept here, but he visited Captain Nathaniel Shaw (whose home served as Connecticut’s Naval office) and commissioned him and a host of other ship owners to fill Long Island Sound with armed, fast-sailing privateers to intercept British merchant ships and commandeer their cargoes to supply the American Army on shore. This they did with astonishing effectiveness and thrilling derring-do.
Today the Shaw Mansion houses the New London Historical Society. The U.S. Coast Guard Academy and “America’s Tall Ship,” the barque Eagle, are based here. With public access to boating and fishing, and a summer schedule of nautical celebrations, you’d think New London would be jam-packed with wonderful places to dine. It’s not.
So I pricked up my ears when a friend phoned recently to tell me about Chaplin’s. It’s a storefront and looks like one. The interior is neat and clean but a bit spare. There’s an open kitchen in the back but it’s half hidden by the bar, which juts into the room and makes the restaurant at first glance seem smaller than it is.
In short, it doesn’t look like much, but don’t judge a restaurant by its decor. First and foremost, Chaplin’s specializes in locally caught seafood, and being so close to the source, it couldn’t be fresher.
And we’re keen to taste it. Scanning the menu and listening to the specials, we realize that except for salads, one chicken dish, one pasta and a filet mignon special, it’s all fish or shellfish. The menu is a brisk unelaborated list—which I find refreshing in an era when purple prose is as invasive as kudzu.
We order “calamari” and wait to see how it’s prepared. What arrives exceeds expectations—a soup plate heaped with sweet baby squid bathed in red sauce and tossed with slices of tiny, fiery-hot red and green peppers. Redolent of garlic, this peppy mélange proves irresistible. As an appetizer it easily serves three or four,
Mussels marinara are even more generously supplied. We can’t imagine eating them all. One taste and we know we will. These are the silkiest, briny-sweetest mussels I’ve had in years. This is what you go to the shore for. For $6? We’re impressed. A crab cake, plump with crabmeat and served with house-made aioli, for $5, is equally delicious.
“Dominick’s Salad” is pretty much the sum of its parts—romaine, bleu cheese, sun-dried tomato, hearts of palm and walnuts. I’d prefer fewer ingredients and more of each. Bleu cheese and walnuts, in particular, are too scant to taste. Raising the price from $5 to $6 might cover the cost. A robust Cuban pork-and-black-bean is the soup of the day. Order it by the cup if you’re ordering an entrée because, as we discover, Chaplin’s goes all out to satisfy the heartiest appetite at the lowest price. When have you had a basin of ultrarich, sybaritic fettuccine Alfredo for $10? Order it with shrimp or chicken for an extra $4.
Chaplin’s kitchen demonstrates a fine appreciation for the special qualities of different fish. Halibut, mild-flavored and low-fat, is gently sautéed with almonds. Tuna is garnished with fresh mango and roasted-red-pepper sauce. (Unfortunately, the tuna is unevenly cooked, rare on one end, well-done on the other). Swordfish, firm and robust, is garnished with a spirited salsa (made with two kinds of tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and spices) so good we wish they would bottle it.
Because I feel obliged to try a meat dish, I order the filet mignon. But even this land-lubberly choice comes with something from the sea, a bountiful portion of shrimp scampi. Fresh as can be, the shrimp are plump and sweet and swimming in an ocean of creamy, garlic-scented sauce—so much sauce it inundates everything on the plate, including the steak. Too bad, because the filet is excellent, perfectly cooked medium-rare and flavored with a hint of char from the grill. This surf and turf is a special so we can hope the chef works out a way to serve its components together but not on top of each other.
Desserts are house-made and there are only three on offer—which is not surprising considering how many appetizers and entrées the kitchen has been turning out. But great attention has evidently been lavished on these end-of-the-meal treats. Chocolate mousse topped with freshly whipped cream and served in a parfait glass is cloud-light, rich and flavorful. Key lime pie is tartly terrific, and the strawberry shortcake, made with house-baked pound cake, exceptionally good strawberries and more fresh whipped cream, is perfect in every detail, including a fragrant dusting of freshly grated nutmeg.
Presentation is not Chaplin’s forte, seafood is, and while the premises aren’t the Ritz, the prices are as soothing as the sound of the sea. And the service is so genuinely helpful, warm and cheerful, it’s almost impossible not to feel comforted, cosseted, well-fed and well-satisfied.
165 Bank St., New London (860/443-0684)
Dinnner Tuesday through Saturday 5 to close. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $3 to $6, entrées $10 to $20, desserts $4.Chaplin's, New London