Old Lyme Inn, Old Lyme

 

★★★ [Superior]

A lighthearted beauty, well-mannered without affectation, dressed for the occasion and location—a day or a stay in the country—the new Old Lyme Inn is unpretentious, the way good taste always is. Reopened this summer by new owners who virtually loved it back to life, its charm is as real as it is infectious. The antique mural in the hall has been expertly restored. There are real books on the shelves, genuine oil paintings on the wall and—hey, this is 2012, after all—a PowerPoint presentation board in a parlor that doubles as a meeting room. Meticulously groomed, polished and brought up to date, almost everything is worth a closer look but nothing shouts, “Look at me.”

The food fits that description, too. But adventurous eaters, don’t go away. There’s innovation on these plates, it’s just not in-your-face. And the chef is brilliant. Reading the fine print on the menu is advised. For example, “Lamb Loin Chops” gives no hint of the delicious complexity of this dish, which comprises tandoor spices, spinach yogurt, scintillating lemon-spiked hummus and toasted walnut sauce. Elsewhere it might be called “Fit For a Rajah” and might not be as good. In an overhyped world, it’s nice eating in a place you can trust, and almost every dish my friends and I tried proved the point.

White gazpacho was a subtly different delight. A lovely froth the color of sea foam, made with cucumbers and white grapes, packed a kicker of chili oil in its pale green depths. It was pretty as a picture in an oversize martini glass with a handful of Spanish almonds alongside.  

Myriam, who’s Belgian, ordered mussels because it happened to be Independence Day in Belgium where, she said, “Everybody will be eating moules frites.” When the Atlantic steamed mussels she ordered arrived, she was prepared to accept the fact that they were not the world-famous green-lipped jumbos from Holland she was used to, but these were extra small—in some instances the tidbit inside the shell was too tiny to taste. You’d have to eat a bushel to make a meal of them as, presumably, they were doing in Belgium. And they had frites. Here, there were no frites, not even as a separate order. The garlic, thyme and white wine sauce, however, was delicious. Myriam sopped it up with bread.  

Friends who visited the Old Lyme Inn shortly after it reopened raved about a gorgeous bento box of rare yellowfin tuna, edamame hummus and seaweed salad with wasabi vinaigrette. We looked forward to trying it. Alas, on the proudly presented new menu (the graphics are striking), the bento box had turned into a plate of seared rare tuna and the seaweed salad was replaced by “sushi rice.” Edamame and a dab of wasabi were still on board. Fresh, tasty but considerably less dramatic. Rumor has it that diners wanted a more “New England-type” menu. Who says? Not my readers, I’ll bet. Not to mention the fact that Mystic whalers roamed the world. (I have a painting at home of a clipper ship in the Bay of Japan.) Never mind, Dennis Young is up to any task.

Whatever he chooses to serve, he cooks with imagination and verve—and a sharp eye on the seasons. His midsummer dessert menu supplied skewers, marshmallows, graham crackers and Hershey bars and invited diners to toast their own s’mores over a glowing firepit on the patio. A genuine Boy Scout, Girl Scout, Campfire Girl blast from the past. All that was missing was the forked stick that occasionally caught fire, incinerating our ooey-gooey confection.  

Trendy may be a dirty word, but the current craze for stuff on sticks has much to recommend it. Skewer, marinate, grill—and you’re done. It’s a fun way to eat. Two versions of the age-old, newly popular treat were on the menu the night we ate there. Skewered shrimp and linguica (Portuguese or Brazilian smoked sausage) was tempting, but we went with beef kebab, which turned out to be a composite dish that put the chef’s considerable talent on display: Grilled beef with parsley pesto, summer bean salad and the best arancini I’ve had in years. Freshly made, golden on the outside, melting blue cheese and perfectly al dente rice inside.

So let’s talk about the chef. Formerly at Todd English’s Tuscany at Mohegan Sun Casino and at Shelter Harbor Inn in Westerly, R.I., Dennis Young is committed to the Slow Food movement, organic ingredients, local sourcing and cooking from scratch. At the Old Lyme Inn, he butchers the meat, fillets the fish, makes his own pasta, creates his own recipes. His menu changes seasonally.

Here are some other dishes we enjoyed:

Hearts-of-romaine salad was dewy fresh. Slathered with a Caesar-type dressing sans egg, anchovies and tableside preparation, it was carefully not called Caesar salad. A “warm Parmesan crouton” alongside was actually a breadstick four or five inches long. Too thick and crisp to break up and incorporate in the salad, I took it as an open invitation to eat with my hands. This way its crunchiness was a perfect foil for the leafy greens.

Scottish salmon, lovely on its own, was glorious with wasabi butter, French lentils and a crisp radish salad. Swordfish, too, was turned into something exciting with Cajun marinade, tomatillo salsa, black beans and Spanish rice.

I was a bit surprised to find calf’s liver on the regular menu. It’s a rarity nowadays. Good for you, chef Young. Not everybody likes calf’s liver but those who do ought to be able to find it—especially if it’s as richly flavored, velvety and perfectly cooked as this.

And oh, those lamb chops, bejeweled with exotic herbs and spices!

Clearly the inn’s new owners put food at the top of their priority list. They even have a pastry chef, Inhye Mandeville, who won my immediate allegiance with a fresh peach and blueberry crostada, a flaky, buttery pastry bundle of juicy, fruity, tangy-sweetness. Double lemon pie was light as air. Flourless chocolate cake was outrageously rich and came with salted-caramel sauce. We didn’t get around to cookies and milk but we did have a cherry Coke float. How nostalgic can you get?
 

Old Lyme Inn
85 Lyme St., Old Lyme, 860/434-2600, oldlymeinn.com
Lunch 11 to 5 daily, dinner 5 to close daily. Wheel­chair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appe­tizers $7 to $12, entrées $19 to $26, desserts $4 to $8.
 

Old Lyme Inn, Old Lyme

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