Published December 22. 2011 4:00AM Updated February 28. 2012 10:56AM
Over the (Eightmile) River and through the (Devil's Hopyard) woods is On the Rocks, the restaurant of the Fox Hopyard golf course. On a chilly Sunday in December, it feels almost like traveling to Grandmother's house, and when you get there, they have roast chicken, shepherd's pie and a lot of other dishes Grandma might have had in the oven.
But that's not all they have, and this is not Grandma's dining room.
This is a restaurant that offers both hearty food for hungry golfers and trendy concoctions of the fusion sort. At this time of year, it does so in the handsome bar room, where a large, gilt-framed canvas of a Lyme-ish landscape is in turn framed by two of the four TVs tuned to the NFL. Imagine.
The same menu, introduced a few weeks ago by Chef James Martell, serves for lunch and dinner. It opens with a $28 winter prix fixe offering of three choices each of appetizer and entree and two dessert choices. A la carte offerings include soups, appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts that can be mixed and matched with a list of sandwiches available all day.
We went for lunch and returned for dinner.
The two of us who lunched together Sunday were each driving, so we started with Virgin Marys that had plenty of tang and the added pleasure of two olives, a la martini. An arguably fair way to compare restaurants that offer standard fare might be to judge the bar on the Virgin/Bloody Mary; the kitchen on the Cobb and Caesar salads; the chef on the prime rib; and the waitstaff on what happens when you order tea.
We didn't set out to do that at On the Rocks, but it developed anyway, starting with high marks for the drinks. The Cobb salad at lunch starred a grilled, rather spicy chicken that worked well. Our other choice was the pork sliders with raspberry chipotle sauce and sweet potato fries, tempting for the twist of using raspberry as the sweet element in the barbecue sauce and the premise that the fries seem to be a specialty of the house. Both sliders and fries cater to the taste for something slightly different but would also satisfy said hungry golfer.
Lunch desserts were the two current "temptations" - specials - of the pastry chef, Danielle Hoff: a ginger cheesecake that we found a bit dry and short on the snap of ginger, and a whiskeyed Irish cream chocolate mousse that achieved bittersweet perfection and then went over the top with the whiff of the whiskey. By the time we had Hoff's hot Fuji apple tartlet and the pistachio creme brulee profiteroles at dinner, we knew that she is one of the glories of On the Rocks. Come for the golf, stay for the desserts.
Dinner began with two salads. The Caesar, surprisingly garnished with tomatoes, featured really crisp Romaine and dressing that was pronounced subtle, as in not-clobbered-with-anchovies. The chopped pear and baby spinach salad builds nicely on a classic - goat cheese, walnuts - with a delicious twist: toasted quinoa and pomegranate vinaigrette. Healthy, too.
The restaurant was out of the red snapper that is one of three prix fixe entrees. In the mood for fish, I had two other choices: a tempura-style cod fillet or the panko- and wasabi-crusted seared tuna, normally an appetizer. I happily ate the atttractive but oddly square slices of tender rare tuna atop its bed of sweet and sour kimchee.
As TV sets are to oil paintings, prime rib is to ahi tuna, but they share this: Each has to be cooked to just the right point, no less, no longer. The connoisseur of roast beef got a "good cut" of nicely selected beef roasted just as he ordered - medium. It didn't come au jus, but he got a generous bowl of jus when he asked for it. The prime rib dinner went to the head of the class.
Other than that, and the fact that we had to ask a couple of times for water, the service at both meals was friendly and attentive. While we dined, a member of the management made her way around to some of the tables, asking guests if they were local residents and chatting about the food. Most people seemed pleased to be greeted that way.
On the Rocks participates in the Connecticut Farm to Chef program, and in other seasons the menu has included artisanal local cheeses, for example. The freshly done winter menu did not focus on the origins of the ingredients, possibly because it's out of season for local produce.
Finally, the tea. Restaurants try a dozen different ways to serve it without bringing a kettle to the table. The best way is to take the order and make the tea in the kitchen, in an individual pot. But that way adds a trip and may not even be appreciated by tea drinkers who are used to hottish water poured on a bag in a cup.
On the Rocks, like most places, alas, brings the not-so-hot water already in the cup and the accompanying selection of tea bags for dunking. It's only sort-of tea.
But that's just for extra points. Successful compromise is not a beginner magic trick. It takes really knowing whom you want to serve and what they will want to eat. On the Rocks pleases by day and by night. Yes, it's out in the woods, but on a cold, starry winter night, that's a beautiful place to be.