Review: Seafood Shines at Frank’s Gourmet Grille in Mystic

Photos by Mara Lavitt

 

Just off I-95 in a nondescript storefront next door to a doctor’s office, the entrance to Frank’s Gourmet Grille is a world away from the trendy waterside hot spots in downtown Mystic. Even chef and owner Francis Grace admits it has zero curb appeal and “no views whatsoever.”

But once guests walk inside, this hidden gem of an eatery embraces them with a heartfelt congeniality. Grace (below) mingles with almost every visitor. During a visit on a Thursday in August, many regulars dined both at the bar and in the fancy, but not pretentious, dining room.This warmth and family-style welcome extends to the incredibly diverse cuisine, running the gamut from seafood favorites to Italian classics and grilled cuts of steak and pork. But everything had a distinct flair and style. Rich, heavy flavors with ingredients drenched, but not drowned, in sauce are a common theme that worked wonders in the seafood and appetizers.

The first incarnation of Frank’s Gourmet Grille existed in East Lyme from 2002 until 2011 when Grace closed the restaurant after his landlord raised the rent. In May 2015, Frank’s Gourmet Grille was reborn in a new Mystic location.

“I developed a very, very loyal following. I was doing things very similar to what I’m doing in Mystic now,” Grace says after the visit. “I do like people to feel very casual and comfortable when they dine. I don’t like the whole pretentious food art, where you’re paying way more for the artful presentation than you are for the actual substance of the dinner.”

This substance-before-style philosophy is evident in Grace’s dishes, many of which feature local ingredients, including seafood caught that day or the day before, and purchased from Stonington fishermen.Standouts included the grilled mussels and portobello mushroom torte appetizers. Both are standard-sounding dishes that were anything but in their execution. For the grilled mussels, Grace uses shellfish from Prince Edward Island because he says they are more consistent in flavor and size than those available from local waters. The mussels are poached in a spiced broth then topped with compound butter and baked in a convection oven. They are served with shredded Asiago cheese and an aged balsamic glaze. The result is a serving of shellfood flavored by a distinct dressing that my dining companion likened favorably to a subtle barbecue sauce, and which I found elevated the dish to something worth ordering on a return visit.

The portobello mushrooms were a one-dish fungi feast. Oven-roasted portobello mushroom caps are decadently layered with a farmers market-worth of ingredients, including roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted garlic, roasted shallots, sautéed spinach and toasted pine nuts with buffalo mozzarella, Asiago and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Like the mussels, the mushrooms are topped with an aged balsamic glaze. Reminiscent of eggplant parmigiana, the dish is fully delicious. One secret to its preparation, says Grace, is to scrape the fins off the bottoms of the mushroom tops, which cuts down on the mushrooms’ high water content, creating a less mushy, more substantial mushroom cutlet.

Also worth trying were the raw oysters (pictured above). These briny and flavorful Connecticut oysters are grown in Mystic Noank waters. “They’re harvested about two miles from my restaurant, and I don’t think I can get anything more fresh,” Grace says.

The Italian-focused main courses we ordered were fettuccine alfredo and the Godfather — your choice of Italian breaded chicken or veal cutlets (I went with chicken), meatballs and sweet Italian sausage served with Roma tomato sauce. These dishes were enjoyable but didn’t match the seafood items, and left us wishing we had stuck with the coastal theme.

Dessert was another triumph. The bread pudding was moist and rich, the cannoli featured an imported Italian shell, and the house-made filling was smoother and slightly more subtle than your standard cannoli filling. (The taste is accomplished by Grace’s use of both mascarpone and ricotta cheeses — traditional cannoli filling uses only ricotta.)

The bar featured several local brews including offerings from Cottrell Brewing Co. in Pawcatuck and Grey Sail Brewing just over the state border in Westerly, Rhode Island. Wine and cocktails are also offered.

What ultimately separates Frank’s Gourmet Grille is Grace’s passion. “I can’t overemphasize how much I love what I do,” he says. In the end, that enthusiasm is worth more than any view or a waterside-resort’s worth of curb appeal.

Frank’s Gourmet Grille

56 Whitehall Ave., Mystic

860-415-4666, franksgourmetgrilleinmystic.com

Hours: Tue.-Thu. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Mon.

Price range: Appetizers $8-$15; dinner entrées $16-$34; desserts $6-$9

Wheelchair accessible

Ambiance Not much to look at outside, but step inside this unassuming restaurant and enjoy a casual oasis with a slight throwback feel. During my visit, jazz was playing over the PA system, and guests could choose between the dining room and the bar with high-top seating. Both areas were casual and had good acoustics for conversation.

Service Taking their cues from the owner, the staff is friendly and gregarious. Our server answered many questions about the menu and teased me for placing a large order with salad conspicuously absent.

Food Described by its owner as a “continental menu with a Mediterranean flair,” there are lots of seafood options and dishes with Italian influences. Regardless of what you order, flavors are bold and rich.

Contact me by email eofgang@connecticutmag.com and follow me on Twitter, and connect with Connecticut Magazine on Twitter, on Facebook and Google +

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