Restaurant Review: Breakwater, Stonington

All images Jeff Kaufman

★★½ [Very Good-Superior]

Thoreau had Walden Pond. Connecticut has Long Island Sound, reaching from west of Nantucket, sweeping through Woods Hole and on to New York City, carving coves and harbors, caressing and blessing our coast with the sight and sound of the sea. It’s part of our heritage, our history, part of why we live here. Even inland, you don’t need to travel far to get to the shore, breathe the salt air, contemplate the mystery of the sea and dine on its bounty.

The most uniquely situated and breathlessly awaited new restaurant on the Connecticut coast is unequivocally Breakwater in Stonington. It is located where Skipper’s Dock used to be, on a long dock at the mouth of Stonington harbor with access by boat and saltwater views all around. Skipper’s was beloved by locals and mobbed by tourists, an old reliable fixture for more than 20 years.

Breakwater is hot news because it represents the final twist in a soap opera-like saga that has been playing out since 2013 when local restaurateur, Ainslie Turner, who ran Skipper’s since 1984, was notified that the lease would not be renewed. Plot summary: Out-of-state restaurateurs swooped in, spent big bucks renovating Skipper’s, replacing quirky nautical memorabilia with suave decor and a sophisticated menu. They called it Swooners. It opened last June and closed in October.

Rumors flew. One came true. Jon Kodama, well-known Connecticut restaurateur who owns Go Fish, Ten Clams and The Steak Loft in Olde Mistick Village and Dock and Dine in Old Saybrook, took charge of the situation and with an alacrity borne of expertise and practice, is at last doing right by the one-of-a-kind site.Kodama did not turn back the clock. But Breakwater honors the spirit of Skipper’s Dock’s place by recapturing the easy ambiance and camaraderie and serving the simple, fresh ocean-to-table dishes we remember, slightly updated, a few with Asian or Latin-American touches. Nothing posh or pricey.

The menu is as trim and spare as a racing yacht but it rounds all the marks: fish and shellfish by the piece, as appetizers or entrées, or in medleys. Vegetarian options range from grilled, steamed or raw vegetables to orzo plated with mushrooms and coconut-scallion rice. Salads abound. Our favorites are baby arugula with shaved fennel and a more robust combo of roasted beets (see above), frisée and warm goat cheese. Carnivores have fewer choices—three to be exact: shoulder tenderloin steak, boneless short ribs or chicken paillard.We are here to sample the dinner menu from appetizer to dessert.But the roster of casual fare looks too appealing to pass up. Burgers, pizza, tacos, saugys . . . what the heck is a saugy? If you’re not from Rhode Island, it’s a good question. Short answer: A saugy is a hot dog and a Rhode Island-contained phenomenon since 1869 when Augustus Saugy, son of a Rhode Island sausage maker, began manufacturing them. Purportedly the one and only original saugy is made with a natural casing, which gives it a distinctive “snap.”

This is my first encounter with the real thing. And it is a beauty. Both bun and dog are striped with hash marks from the grill, it tastes like a regular frankfurter only better (my friend, Lee, says it may be the best hot dog she ever had), and yes, when you bite into it there is a “snap.”

Connecticut, too, has its iconic fun food—the classic Connecticut-style lobster roll. Always hot, always consisting of lobster, lobster and nothing but lobster, and always drenched with enough melted butter to saturate the bottom half of freshly opened hot dog bun. Simple and unsullied, unless you do the sullying—which is permitted but in my opinion ill-advised. Admittedly, there are lobster rolls with mayonnaise, celery, tartar sauce or piccalilli, chilled or toasted. I’ve tried them all and you may disagree, but for me, Connecticut-style hot lobster rolls (including Breakwater’s) are the royal way to go.

Another shoreline staple, fish and chips, actually fish and french fries, is exceptionally able to be what you want it to be—a grab-and-go bite or a sit-down dinner entrée. Either way, excellence depends on the freshness and quality of the fish and the proficiency of the cook at the fry station. At Breakwater, our fish and chips platter sails in, heaped high with fillets of expertly fried white fish in a crispy golden crust. Perfect. The chips? Not so. But not to worry, it’s early in the game, plenty of time for retooling (the sea will wait) and already Breakwater’s hits outnumber its misses.

Grilled swordfish, the “Fresh Fish for Today,” is clearly a major league winner. A gorgeous center cut, singed with char from the grill, snowy white and moist within, a symphony in black and white, it tastes as fresh as if it jumped straight from the clean, cold waters of Georges Bank into Breakwater’s kitchen an hour or two ago.Two beef entrées are offered and we try both because each is intriguing and says a lot about how savvy this kitchen is. In fact, Teres Major steak (sometimes called petite tender or bistro filet), is a new leader at trendy upscale restaurants and is beginning to show up at artisanal butchers. Cut from one of the most tender beef muscles, it resembles extra-lean, extra-flavorful filet mignon. Our order arrives grilled whole, sliced into medallions, reconstructed and served with a glisten of mushroom demi-glace. Teres Major may sound like a celestial constellation but this one is devilishly delicious.

Short ribs Asian-style, sliced thin enough to pick up with chopsticks and laved with luscious dark mahogany sauce, may seem like a stretch for a restaurant in a quaint Connecticut village but the dish is too tasty to pass up. And it’s worth remembering the glory days when more than one intrepid whaler sailed from Stonington around The Horn to China and back again bringing new tastes, new ideas and new wealth.

Breakwater desserts stick closer to home—American and old-fashioned in a good way. The blueberries in the bread pudding are the tiny, juicy ones that used to grow wild along the dunes, the whipped cream is real, the apple crumble tastes home-made. But the cheesecake springs a surprise.

I’m no spoiler. My lips are sealed.

Breakwater

66 Water St., Stonington, (860) 415-8123, breakwaterstonington.com

Hours: Sun. through Thurs. 11: 30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fri. and Sat. 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Price range: appetizers, dogs and rolls $3.50 to $17.50, entrées $12 to $18.50, desserts $6. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards.

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