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A Cozy Place: Nancy's Rosemary & Sage offers the right mix of local flavors

Published 10/21/2009 12:00 AM

It was late in the afternoon on a Monday when four of us started looking for a good place to go out for dinner.

Read that sentence again. Do you see the problem yet? It was a Monday. Or, loosely translated in the restaurant world, "We're closed."

We thought our criteria was uncomplicated: something locally owned with an interesting menu that's open year-round. Who knew what a scavenger hunt that would turn into?!

Lucky for us, after a flurry of phone calls we finally remembered a small restaurant in Old Saybrook that a friend recently recommended: Nancy's Rosemary & Sage.

Located at 1080 Boston Post Road, near Old Saybrook High School, the restaurant offered exactly what we were in search of: a cozy table, a full bar, and a menu interesting enough for our foursome of meat-eaters to almost-vegetarians.

The Nancy in the name is owner Nancy Lamb, whose husband, Jack, encouraged his wife to take the leap from restaurant staff to restaurant owner about 4 1/2 years ago. She had worked at Cherrystones Restaurant in Old Lyme.

"He wanted me to do this," Nancy Lamb says. "I worked so many years at Cherrystones, he wanted me to have my own place. He approached the (previous) owner and he said yes."

That was in the spring of 2005. The sale went through quickly and Jack Lamb wanted to re-open in time to take advantage of the seasonal surge.

"May 14 was my last day at Cherrystones," Lamb says. "We had two weeks to go through the whole place and get our own menu written and our own food."

Luckily, the walls had recently been painted, so the Lambs kept the warm color scheme, then added a TV to the bar and new appliances in the kitchen. They opted to keep the name, partly because it was already established and partly because there wasn't time to register a new name with the state; instead, they added "Nancy's" to the existing "Rosemary & Sage."

Some of the former staff moved on to a new restaurant with the former owner, while others remained. Nancy Lamb also had a following of former Cherrystones staffers who joined her and an immediate clientele of customers who wanted to try her restaurant.

Nancy's brother, David Dill Saunders, is the chef and her mother, Nancy Dill Saunders, makes dessert. Each is experienced in restaurants; David cooked everywhere from Cherrystones to restaurants in Naples, Fla., Virginia and Rhode Island; Nancy Dill Saunders owned a catering business in town.

Lamb says they've tweaked the menu four or five times, the biggest change a welcome one to our group: the option to order half or full portions. Although they offer it, the restaurant sells very little beef. Customers seem to prefer the seafood and chicken dishes, Lamb says.

With the cooler weather, she adds, the restaurant's specials will soon begin to reflect the comfort foods popular in fall and winter, such menu additions as chicken pot pie, pot roast, and meatloaf. Lamb says the latest version of shrimp scampi -- one of the dinners we ordered -- is the most popular and "flies out the door."

It includes artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes mixed with a generous amount of shrimp. Our group also ordered the filet mignon, a special that night; Stonington sea scallops with a light seasoning that allowed the sweet scallops to deservedly shine through without being overpowered; and a salmon special with a nice cajun kick.

Our appetizers included a tuscan calamari with sweet peppers and stuffed mushrooms. Bread comes with every meal and is accompanied by a tangy aioli colored pink by beets -- no worries, it's not beet-flavored. But as much as we enjoyed dinner, it was the dessert that stole the night. The coconut torte alone is worth a special trip.

Sliced like a piece of pie, it was the perfect amount of sweet, unlike some coconut desserts that take on a syrupy flavor and texture. Even our friend who claims not to have a sweet tooth -- by the way, is that even possible? -- was having a hard time putting her fork down.

Lamb says many of the desserts change with the seasons. The restaurant also changes its mousse flavors.

The service was prompt and friendly, including Lamb, who was pouring the water when we arrived and stopped to talk to us and other customers throughout the night (and, it should be noted, she did so without knowing we were writing about the restaurant).

It's hard work running a restaurant, Lamb says, but rewarding.

"It was very different from working (at a restaurant) to owning," she says. "There's a lot I had to learn that I had never done, but the customers make it easier... It's a lot of hours and I'm married to the place, but I love it."

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Nancy's Rosemary & Sage

1080 Boston Post Road, Old Saybrook, CT

Open Mon.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Sundays, but open for private parties.

860.388.1166