About 20 years ago, my kid brother introduced his new fiancee to the family at Christmas. We used to do one of those pull-a-name-from-a-hat arrangements to avoid everyone having to buy a zillion tiny, unlovable gifts. That year, I had his name.
On the hunch that an engagement announcement was coming, I put together a his-and-her picnic basket for a romantic lunch whenever it would get warm enough to eat outside.
The fiancee, now my good-sport sister-in-law, is from New Jersey, and she was entering a den of Yankee New Englanders. When the new couple together unwrapped the gift, she exclaimed, "A picnic basket! How Connecticut!"
Whereupon one of the fraternal wags retorted, "What would be 'so New Jersey'? Road flares?"
The Old Lyme Inn is so Connecticut, and that's a very good way to be, in spite of some of the natives' barbed senses of humor. The recently reopened inn is going to fit right in with the state's new tourism slogan, "Connecticut: Still Revolutionary."
Not that the inn dates back to the 1700s. Rather, it nestles into the roadside of Lyme Street, where the period is late 19th and early 20th centuries and the homestead of the Lyme Art Colony is diagonally across the street at Florence Griswold's mansion-now-museum. The new owners, Ken and Chris Kitchings, have added a patio overlooking that scenery to the options of dining in the grill room or the formal dining rooms. In addition to about a dozen guest rooms, they plan to add a jazz club on the back of the inn in 2013.
For atmosphere and ambience and environs, Old Lyme Inn gets an easy "A." Now what about the food? The inn employs Chef Dennis Young, Sous Chef David Kanelos and Pastry Chef In Hye Mandeville to make the grade.
On a recent dinner hour visit - the inn also does lunch - we were tempted to try the Spring Pea Soup with crisp cinnamon crostini and lemon ($7). The waiter urged us to go for it. Do not think about old standby pea soup; this potage was a grass-green puree with random intact petits pois and a swirl of creme fraiche. The crostini was slightly drowned, which I mention only because it was advertised as crisp. But every flavor, from pea to Z, hummed in harmony.
A shrimp cocktail special featured six husky shrimp ready to plunge into a particularly spicy cocktail sauce with a side of horseradish. The shrimp cocktail connoisseur was impressed.
Other options were two salad choices ($7), raw oysters ($12) or steamed mussels ($9), cod cakes ($9), chicken liver crostini ($8), sushi-type salmon ($9) and Korean style pork belly ($10).
Service was so prompt as to be almost too rapid, but we had a few minutes to sample the house breads, which we found to be too light on taste and texture.
The regular menu, before any specials are announced, has 11 entrees - not a lot - divided among raw (curiously defined to include a quesadilla), steamed (antique recipe for lobster stew, $30), saute (including shrimp 'n' grits, $24), grill (sirloin and filet mignon, $29 and $25, respectively) and roast - pulled chicken ($22), stuffed Vidalia ($18), and the two we ordered: spicy sausage and sweet grapes ($19) and Tandoori spiced lamb chops ($26).
Whoever thought of the sausage and grapes was really thinking. And why not? You eat turkey and cranberry, ham and pineapple. Red and green grapes cooked to release the sweetness but not the juice beautifully complemented the pudgy sausage and mashed potatoes in a sophisticated riff on bubble-and-squeak.
An order of Tandoori lamb chops brought three compact, tender loin chops cooked as ordered - medium rare for me - and subtly but soundly spiced. The chops came with spinach dressed in yogurt, paprika hummus and roasted walnut sauce, an inspired combination that deserves to be one of the inn's signature dishes.
In steak-house fashion, the menu offers sides of roasted asparagus ($6), mashed potatoes ($5), corn grits ($5) and the hummus ($4). We got three of those four as integral elements of our entrees, without ordering them separately.
One of our two desserts was an unusual and wonderful baked Alaska ($7), the meringue topping browned rather than baked, letting it slide deliciously over a sweet cookie base, and offset by a tangy strawberry rhubarb sauce. The other was a chocolate cream puff filled with cinnamon ice cream ($7), which slightly disappointed the diner who was expecting more chocolate taste from a pastry labeled "dark."
Not to quibble, though. In three courses for two diners, we had sauces based on yogurt, walnuts, rhubarb, horseradish, balsamic vinegar, chickpeas, cream and chocolate. Every one held its own and held its dish together. That's what you want from chefs who put their names on the menu.
Interesting and delicious food served hospitably. That seems like the very definition of an updated country inn.