Best of Connecticut 2009: Food & Drink
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Carmen Anthony Steakhouse and Fishhouse Avon, (860) 677-7788, and other locations (carmenanthony.com)
The crab cake is as ubiquitous in Connecticut these days as the hot dog and the fried mozzarella stick, and many of them are very good to be sure, but none quite matches up to the delicious offering at the state's five Carmen Anthony restaurants. Here is a unique and substantial treat, featuring a generous portion of tender Maryland lump crab lightly encrusted with potato, then perfectly browned and topped with savory remoulade. It's hard to imagine a dish more worthy of a crustacean's noble sacrifice.
Rein's Vernon, (860) 875-1344 (reinsdeli.com)
Bob and Bernie Rein opened their doors in unlikely Vernon in 1972, and the masses have been pouring in ever since, hungry for a taste of chicken soup and matzoh balls, hot pastrami and corned beef on rye, Old World-style blintzes, New York cheesecake and more. The atmosphere is homey and fun, with train station-style signs directing you to Brooklyn, Staten Island, Long Island and Flushing (for you-know-what). For travelers on I-84, it's the pit stop of choice.
O'Rourke's Middletown, (860) 346-6101 (orourkesdiner.com).
Like a phoenix, O'Rourke's has gloriously risen from the ashes of the fire that nearly doomed the Middletown institution in 2006. Chef-owner Brian O'Rourke has long been known for his creative cooking and decidedly un-dinerlike offerings-his French toast made with Irish soda bread was among our "50 Connecticut Dishes To Try Before You Die" (May). And judging by the crowds that still flock to the tiny diner, it's clear that O'Rourke's is the place to go for a diner experience unlike any other.
Dottie's Diner Woodbury, (203) 263-2516
Is it possible that the best doughnuts in Connecticut are better than ever? Such a thought was far from our minds three years ago when we heard that Phillips Diner in Woodbury was changing hands and that the great, almost embarrassing pleasure we got from eating its delicious doughnuts would thus be imperiled. But under the very able stewardship of new owner Dottie Sperry all is well. Actually, all is quite a bit better than well. The wall of doughnuts still greets you reassuringly as you come through the door, although the choices can be daunting; after all, the chocolate-frosted variety is without peer, the plain is pure cakey bliss just dying to be dunked, and the cinnamon resides in a crunchy-yet-somehow-silky world all its own.
Flanders Fish Market & Restaurant East Lyme, (860) 739-8866 (flandersfish.com)
Flanders Fish Market & Restaurant opened in 1983 as a specialty market providing fresh fish and seafood along with a small line of prepared food items. In no time, customers were demanding more, and today the fish market is also home to a 150-seat restaurant serving everything from Alaskan king crab legs to lobster potpie. The original market is still thriving, with a wide variety of high-quality seafood and products to complement any meal.
Plan B Burger Bar & Tavern West Hartford, (860) 231-1199, and other locations (planbtavern.com)
This modern tavern is known for outstanding certified natural beef burgers in innovative permutations, but what's a burger without a helping of crisp, salty fries on the side? Plan B serves up just that, using only the highest-grade potatoes and cooking them in zero transfat oil-light, crisp, golden, and most importantly, delicious.
Southern Hospitality Soul Food Restaurant New Haven, (203) 785-1575.
It may look like a ramshackle little take-out joint-a well-worn screen door, three small tables and a glass counter case full of sweet potato pie and peach cobbler-but when it comes to serving up fried chicken, this Whalley Avenue kitchen is the real deal. Thin-coated, perfectly crispy, golden-brown drumsticks, thighs, breasts . . . the aroma has you salivating long before it reaches your mouth. And when you order the fried chicken dinner, you get two Southern-style sides (collard greens, black-eyed peas, etc.) and home-baked corn bread. Now that's hospitality!
GIFT BASKETS: FOOD
Stew Leonard's Norwalk, (800) 729-7839 (stewleonards.com)
It seems anything Stew Leonard's touches is a winner, and gift baskets are no exception. We've scored big sending college kids the "Sweet Treats Gift" (chocolate cookies, caramel corn, truffles, butter mints, caramel peanut patties, almond bark and peanut brittle, $29.99). And who wouldn't love a "Half-Gallon Brownie Bucket" (three kinds, $19.99), or the "Stew's Choice Basket Gift" ($59.99), six pounds of fruit, cheese, crackers and coffee along with nuts, caramel corn, chocolate chip cookies, mints and more.
Agave Grill Hartford, (860) 882-1557 (agavehartford.com)
Some like it hot, some smooth. However you like your guacamole, we insist that you try it at least once at Agave Grill in Hartford. We promise you'll be back for more. Take fresh, flavorful avocados (at the peak of ripeness), add a restaurant seasoned with a lively atmosphere and you'll be transported to tortilla heaven-pronto! Agave Grill serves dishes to satisfy all manner of Mexican, Spanish and Southwestern tastes, plus signature margaritas and more than 40 types of tequila.
Koto Japanese Steak House Hibachi & Sushi Bar Groton, (860) 445-KOTO (kotoct.com)
Koto offers an impressive sushi selection and an intimate dining area, but it's the hibachi dining that stands out at this colorful hot spot. Turning out-of-this-world Japanese cuisine into an art form, the talented chefs skillfully prepare and cook your meal right before your eyes, performing entertaining culinary stunts along the way. Hibachi dishes include lobster, steak, chicken and scallops, and are served with shrimp, soup, salad and your choice of rice or noodles.