85 Main, Putnam
★★ [Very Good]
85 Main in Putnam is less than two miles from Interstate Highway 395 but a prettier way to approach it is by meandering along Route 44 through rolling pastureland and groves of pine, with glimpses of brooks and ponds, steepled churches, and (yes, we saw them) flocks of sheep.
With chamber of commerce brio, the town has been called Connecticut’s best-kept secret, the antiques capital of the east, the heart of the Quiet Corner. A bit overstated, perhaps, but there are good reasons to make it a May destination. Among them, if you want to stretch your legs, is a 1.1-mile walking trail that winds along the Quinebaug River past six of the historic textile mills that were Putnam’s claim to fame in the 1800s.
Back on Main Street, several storefront restaurants offer sidewalk dining. 85 Main looks like just another one. It’s not. It’s fine dining in disguise, stripped of la-di-da and tweaked to proffer something for all ages and tastes. There’s sushi. There’s a raw bar. There’s house-smoked pulled-pork BBQ and wild mushroom ravioli, clam chowder and chicken and duck liver pâté.
Visually, too, there are mixed messages. Plastic laminated menus shout diner. The paintings on the wall say art gallery. Two dining rooms, both furnished with clean-lined polished wood tables and chairs strike the eye—depending on the beholder—as bare or stylishly spare. A sophisticated sensitivity, however, underlies it all—unobtrusively, so you can relax and enjoy.
Everybody around us seems to be doing just that on the cool, rainy night we surreptitiously settle in to do a review. A birthday party for a 10-year-old is in progress, with parents and grandparents in attendance. The kids are well behaved, but feel free to get up and walk around to chat with each other. Across the room a couple of 20-somethings are deliberating over the wine list. The table next to us wants vegetarian.
Behind the scenes, chef-owner James Martin pulls these disparities together and makes it work. We encounter a few missteps, but the convivial, we’re-all-in-this-together attitude with which they’re remedied make them easy to forgive. My salmon is overcooked and quickly replaced, not just the fish but the fully garnished plate. We have to ask for water twice. The second time the waitress brings a pitcher and leaves it on the table.
The list of specials changes daily, so we confine our orders mostly to the regular menu, starting with a brisk, bold seafaring clam chowder. Hiding in its depths are diced new potatoes, bits of applewood bacon and kernels of fresh corn to bite into for a burst of sweetness. An appetizer of Mediterranean Calamari Sauté is a mini-meal portending largesse to come. Almost every appetizer and entrée we sample is bountiful enough for sharing. In this instance, tender ringlets of calamari are heaped high alongside bright green baby spinach and red cherry tomatoes pan-warmed in white wine and served with chunks of grilled garlic bread. The combination is as delicious as it is colorful.
Noonie’s Salad is an orgy of organically grown baby arugula, blue cheese, dried cherries and candied walnuts. It fills the plate but it’s irresistible. We eat it all.
Six larger-than-life ravioli stuffed with wild mushrooms are great if you like your pasta al dente. I find them a little tough, but to each his own. With sage butter, aged Parmesan and garlic-seared haricots verts, they’re a vegetarian’s delight for $19.
Orange-and-coriander chicken is Cinco de Mayo on a plate. Half an organic free-range chicken arrives wreathed with south-of-the-border accoutrements—chipotle mashed sweet potatoes, seared greens, orange-and-yucca salad. A dish to brighten any day.
An entrée of New Bedford scallops with sweet corn sauce is less alluring. The scallops are mushy, the corn sauce overpowered by hickory-smoked bacon and the wild mushroom risotto inexplicably bland.
My salmon, the second time around, is perfectly cooked, the distinctive flavor and silky texture of wild salmon intact. A ribbon of arugula and walnut pesto decorates one end so you can have your salmon with or without. I try a little plain, then some with sauce. I like both.
The menu lists sides but like most entrées, the salmon comes with an appropriate entourage—a sea of creamy al dente lemon risotto and a swirl of seared baby spinach.
Midway through our appetizer course, a waitress tells us that the veal lasagna made two hours ago “is ready now.” Intrigued, we order it. According to the specials menu, it’s made with grass-fed veal, herbed ricotta cheese, spinach, roasted red pepper, carrot, mozzarella and house marinara, all of which arrive in a gloriously creamy mélange of flavor and fragrance. If we had an Italian nonna, her kitchen would smell like this.
Before we go on to dessert, we check out the raw bar, where we admire the oysters (Wellfleets, Blue Points and Malpecs). At the sushi bar, everything sparkles. We try a Monarch Roll of rock crab, cucumber, eel and avocado with eel sauce and vow to return for a sushi-and-sashimi meal.
The dessert list holds no surprises. The usual suspects — crème brûlée, tiramisu, cheesecake and molten lava cake — are in good form, and all are house-made; the bomba is your usual commercially made chocolate-covered ice cream ball. Along with mango and raspberry sorbet, it’s a pleasant, if uninspired, array.
All told, 85 Main has the bases covered—and there’s an inviting sidewalk café for a taste of the big city in the country.
85 Main St., Putnam (860/928-1660; 85main.com)
Open seven days a week, 11:30 to 11:30. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $5.50 to $12, $19 to $30, desserts $6.95 to $8.95.