Published March 10. 2011 4:00AM Updated February 28. 2012 1:46PM
The Flood Tide restaurant seemed a natural choice for the Food Network's show "Restaurant: Impossible." Its prime location - part of an inn on a Mystic hilltop overlooking the water - and the culinary accolades it once received were proof that, despite its decline, it could flourish once again.
If you watched the episode last week, the makeover came off as a great success. But on a recent trip there, we felt a little like we were still watching the show, rooting for the staff to turn things around.
On our visit, we noticed the new sign at the entrance that was featured on the show: The Wood Grill at Flood Tide, emblazoned on a boat. Celebrity Chef Robert Irvine's idea was to convince locals that the new Flood Tide was not the same as the one that had lost its luster. But the new name seems to have been mostly abandoned, since it's nowhere on the restaurant's website.
We sat in the lower dining room, which was untouched by Irvine and his team. But the main-level dining room, featuring the exhibition kitchen, got some much-needed color when the dark mohagany woodwork was painted mustard and coral red. A few new additions to the décor - a large fish skeleton sculpture and blackboards with boat sketches - were also good modern touches, but it leaves the place stuck in limbo. The old carpets, white tablecloths, brass railings, leather chairs and piano playing are relics that just don't match.
The show shocked its audience by detailing a dirty kitchen but showed the staff cleaning it up, so we decided to have some faith that they learned their lesson and kept it that way.
The dinner crowd on a Friday night was mostly older, choosing between new selections inspired by Irvine and a fixed price menu of more traditional dishes. We went with the new menu, which focuses on the restaurant's wood burning grill. Irvine got rid of the dishes made tableside, such as Caesar salad and chateaubriand, dismissing them as dated and time-consuming.
Our appetizers were not as hot as they should have been, but the flavors stood out. The blue crab fritters ($9) were soft and doughy, with crab, sweet corn, scallions and banana peppers and a spicy aioli for dipping. The crispy duck spring rolls ($7) were not that crispy, but the duck added some richer flavor in some kind of sweet and sour sauce with just a tad of heat. The wood-grilled smoky chicken flatbread ($8) had a nice balance of flavor with sweet caramelized onion, spinach, tomatoes and smoked gouda on top, though, again, the bread could have been crunchier.
On the show, much was made of teaching the servers to be friendlier, and our waitress was pleasant enough, though we had to wait for refills of water and wine.
Our entrees were an improvement, with the salmon roulade ($22) emerging as a favorite - nicely cooked, with a crisp (finally!) outside over healthy black quinoa, sweet roasted tomato, greens and a green herb sauce. The rack of lamb ($28) was also tender in a demi-glace, with delicious garlic mashed potatoes. We found that perfect crunchiness again in the skin of the roasted chicken ($20), keeping the meat moist inside, and the filet mignon ($31) was also juicy, with a gorgonzola crust.
To complete the meal, we split a dessert, a chocolate peanut butter torte ($7) that we wouldn't order again. Something about the peanut butter flan didn't work, and the blackberry chocolate glaze was unappetizing.
Before the Food Network, a dining companion observed, the Flood Tide was like a porcelain doll no one played with anymore.
Now, the restaurant has some new potential, and it should embrace change and go all the way, in food, name and décor. It's almost there, and we're rooting for it.