Published September 13. 2012 4:00AM
Say "The Monkey Farm" to any given group of people, and most of them will know exactly what you're talking about. Its reputation tends to precede it. Some know the cafe as a historic tavern; some say it's a biker bar; others know it as a great place to play darts; and still others only know it as the place their mothers told them never to go for whatever reason.
It was option #3 that brought me to "the Farm" the first time around. How bad could a little old bar in little Old Saybrook be?
The answer is not bad at all. I passed a fine evening tossing darts, paying very little for drinks, and feeding dollars to a fantastic jukebox. I assured my mother that my childhood in New Britain had been far scarier.
Since then, my husband and I look for reasons to go to the Farm. We'd heard from a few people that the place had stepped up its game in the kitchen -yes, there's food at the Farm - and that seemed as good an excuse as any. On a recent Sunday evening, then, we went for dinner (food is served daily from 11:30 a.m. until 11:30 p.m.; lunch ends at 3 p.m.).
We started with a bar-food basic: nachos. What we received was an oven-baked giant platter of cheesy, jalapeno-decked chips. Beneath the crunchy, tasty mount, we discovered a dollop of refried beans - bonus! I'm a huge fan of refries and quick to dismiss bad ones, and the Farm's were worth the calories.
For funsies we ordered teriyaki chicken dumplings - something we considered an unusual offering on the Farm's otherwise pub-inspired app menu. As it turned out, it was good to step outside the cheese-fry box. The dumplings had been briefly fried, and arrived on a plate of greens and accompanied by a not-at-all-salty teriyaki sauce. We enjoyed them quite a bit.
Come dinner-order time, we asked our waitress for her recommendations. Two quickly came to her mind: the lobster roll and the burgers. As a non-lobster fan, I went with an 8-ounce cheeseburger ($7.50; cheese options available; I went with my guilty pleasure, American), and I'm very glad I did. From the very soft, nice hardroll and real, ruby-red tomato to the perfectly cooked, hand-made patty and great pickles on the side, the Farm's burger is hereby recommended. While it can't hang with the boutique options at Bobby's Burger Palace or Jack Rabbit's, it is much, much better than any clamshack burger I've sampled. A 12-ouncer also is available for $8.50. The shoestring fries that come with were fantastic: crisp, not too salty, and very fresh.
My husband's Cajun Chicken Wrap ($8.50 and another generous portion, served with provolone, lettuce, tomato and mayo) proved tasty, too. The tender chicken was a pleasant surprise, and, while we could've used a little more Cajun punch, we enjoyed the mellower mix nonetheless.
And when you see an item marked "famous" on an eatery's menu, it behooves you to give it a try, so we also sampled a cup of Famous Farm Chili ($4.50). This is good stuff, people, and it comes with onions and cheese if you like. I went with a cheese-only version and I would order it again in a hot minute. Red beans, good seasoning, and tender beef make for a thick, soul-satsifying, belly-filling treat. There's the slightest bit of a kick at the end of a spoonful that shouldn't bother the spice-sensitive. For those who like it hot, try adding some of the Tabasco sauce that arrives tableside (along with three mustards, ketchup, and A1 sauce).
Yet another pleasant surprise on the menu - pizza - made our last choice easy. With about a half dozen different pies available on the menu, we opted for a Margherita pie, which, as it turns out, comes with bacon, along with the standard basil, mozzarella and tomatoes. How could we refuse?
We might refuse next time. While the pie wasn't at all bad, it wasn't much to write home about. We Nutmeggers are spoiled by an abundance of genius pizza-makers in the region, so anything short of Pepe's-level pies is in for some major pizza snobbery. I'll say this: the Farm's marg pie toppings were very flavorful (but possibly over-garlic-ed) and the crust was thin and decent, flavor-wise. The problem was, the sum of those parts doesn't amount to much. Pizza takes a careful alchemy to achieve greatness, but it does appear the Farm's chefs are on the right track to get there.
Bottom line: if billiards, dartboards, pinball, and decent drink prices ring your bell, spend a low-key evening at a cozy table at the Monkey Farm, with the assurance that you can stay for dinner and eat well.