The first hint that the Wood River Golf Course is full of surprises is the name of the restaurant: 11th Green Restaurant and Pub.
Aren't the pubs at golf courses called the 19th hole?
The reason behind the restaurant's name goes back to 2000, when the Thompson family carved a golf course - or at least part of one - out of a former chicken farm. Eventually they had 11 holes, and Wood River became the only course in the world with an 11-hole rate. They would add seven more holes, but when you come off the 11th green, the clubhouse/restaurant is a chip shot away. Thus, the name.
The philosophy of the golf course - affordable prices, casual atmosphere - carries over to the restaurant.
In the front room, there's a bamboo bar along one wall and booths that overlook, what else, the 11th green. A dining room with tables is in the back.
The bar, as you would expect, draws golfers who swap stories about just-missed birdie putts over cold beers and burgers. But the restaurant, through word of mouth, has developed a loyal following, too, especially on Wednesday nights when you can get a bottle of wine and two entrees for $29.95.
The prices are generally $3 or $4 cheaper than what you'll find at most restaurants. Remember, I said affordable.
Your wait person will likely be a member of the family - Kate and Wes or one of their kids, Kim and Matt. After mowing the fairways, Wes often jumps in to help on busy nights. Remember, I said casual.
One key employee, however, isn't a member of the Thompson family - well, at least technically. Chef Steven Disano, who had previously worked on Federal Hill in Providence, is the guy behind the curtain who turns out some of the best food ever found at a golf course.
We started with cups of Rhode Island clam chowder and pasta fagioli, both $2.95. While Rhode Island chowder is often called "clear," that's somewhat of a misnomer as the broth in a good version is murky. And that's what I found in my cup, hiding piles of potatoes and clams, and some celery. I'm not a fan of milky chowder so I order this variation often, and this was among the best I've ever had.
The pasta fagioli was a tasty mix of pasta and white beans in a thick tomato broth. A bowl of this with the crusty Italian bread brought to the table could easily be a meal.
It's a good sign when a kitchen can nail chowder and a pasta and bean soup.
We also ordered calamari ($7.25), which was served Rhode Island style with hot pepper rings and was tender, not rubbery as can too often be the case. A dinner salad was a heaping pile of fresh veggies and another bargain at $2.95.
My wife Betty and I went to the specials boards for our entrees. I ordered tortellini Sicilian ($13.95), cheese tortellini mixed with chunks of grilled eggplant, held together with a marinara sauce that had a nice kick to it and topped by mozzarella.
Betty ordered sole picatta ($14.95), three thin pieces of tender-fork sole with capers in a white wine/lemon sauce that she raved about.
Our dining companions were a golf buddy, Mike, and his wife, Gail. Mike enjoyed grilled pork tenderloin with a hint of a Dijon sauce ($14.95) and Gail had veal parmigiano and pasta ($17.95). On an earlier visit, I took a chance and ordered the veal saltimbocca and ended up with a glorious mixture of veal, proscuitto, mozzarella and mushrooms in a marsala wine sauce. Gail confirmed that the veal here is a first-rate cut perfectly cooked.
The sole and pork were served with smashed potatoes. The pork also came with carrots, but for some reason the sole didn't.
While our entrees cost $15 on average, the servings were so generous that three of us took home some leftovers.
The final surprise of the night came with the desserts, housemade by owner Kate Thompson. We tried orange flan ($3.75), beautifully presented with a half slice of orange on top, and a huge portion of mixed berry cobbler served with vanilla ice cream ($4.25). Like everything else, they were scrumptious and a great value.
Wood River is about two miles off exit 2 on I-95 in Rhode Island, a short drive for many in eastern Connecticut. And if you go there a few times, the Thompsons will treat you like family.