Charles T. Clark
If comments on tripadvisor.com and votes tallied by Connecticut Magazine in their annual Connecticut Favorites survey are to be trusted, Penny Lane Pub is Old Saybrook's most popular restaurant. Given the stiff competition - the town has become the Mecca for good eating on this part of the shore - those opinions aren't just chopped liver.
I recently visited the pub with one of its many aficionados. The bustling ground floor dining room was jammed with a mix of families and all ages when we arrived at 6, with latecomers being seated in the second floor dining room. This on a cold Tuesday night. In February. At what we hope is the tail end of a recession.
Over the course of a long and leisurely dinner, evidence mounted to support the restaurant's reputation.
If you haven't been, don't anticipate a replica of an English public house. Penny Lane Pub has the requisite intimacy and informality, not to mention a full bar. But, save for a scattering of dishes like fish & chips, shepherd's pie, and ploughman's platter, the menu has a much broader appeal. The combined lunch and dinner menu is nothing if not comprehensive, with many salads, sandwiches, and burgers (most under $12.95). Appetizers like coconut shrimp, fried calamari, crab cakes, and nachos circle the globe and set you back under $12.95.
A first-rate Southampton Spinach Salad - a hearty bowl of greens for $11.95 - was garnished with sliced mushrooms, chopped egg, tomato wedges, and a light and tart warm bacon vinaigrette. This and other salads can, for an additional sum, be accompanied by a selection of grilled, fried, or baked meats and fish. For a more substantial meal, try the lamb salad (roast lamb on spinach with mushrooms, feta and tomatoes) ($17.95) or a salad of sirloin strips, Gorgonzola, and mixed greens ($18.95).
The aforementioned crab cakes were perched on a bed of mesclun, paired with lemon wedges and accompanied by two sauces: an overly sweet mango wasabi coulis (more wasabi would have added spine) and a fine dill tomato aioli. The cakes were light, almost fluffy, and flecked with good crabmeat.
Mum's meatloaf ($15.95) exemplified comfort food. The tremendous portion had a lovely crisp exterior, a moist interior, and was lacquered in rich, smoky gravy - a perfect complement, too, to the chunky mashed potatoes. The plate was finished with a heap of near-crisp green beans.
At $19.95, Scallops Seamus was a nice take on Coquilles St. Jacques. A half dozen or so impeccably fresh sea scallops were bound in a light cheese sauce with artichoke hearts and sliced new potatoes and baked in a casserole. They were accompanied by sliced sautéed vegetables and rice pilaf.
Here you can also find sole meunière, baby back ribs, New York strip steak, and Scottish smoked salmon. Crave a visit to the Mediterranean? Order Penny Lane Pub's Seafood Provençale. Pub Steak au Poivre is served with Gorgonzola and pepper brandy cream sauce.
Corned beef and cabbage is a Thursday night special, and on Fridays and Saturdays, the restaurant features roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Drop in any time for classics like calves liver, onions and bacon; roast free-range chicken; and broiled steak with mushrooms. The range of offerings is dizzying. Most of these come in under $25, a few under $20. And they are a welcome throwback to fine dining during the Eisenhower administration!
A hefty portion of delicious sweet potato fries was served with chipotle pepper sauce - good, but the bottle catsup poised on every table was an even better match ($6.95). Next time we'll try French fries, and fried onion rings.
Nondescript rolls and a crock of butter accompany every meal. The nitpicker in me has to compliment the management on scrupulous attention to spelling (accents in place) and to a well organized website.
Penny Lane Pub's dessert menu restates classic themes, offering apple crisp, crème brulee, molten chocolate cake, and a selection of ice creams - all for under $5.95. We found the sumptuous and decadent Peppermint Ice Cream pie - enough for two - a jolly summing up of the Penny Lane experience. The superb peppermint ice cream, sitting on the slimmest crust of crushed Oreo cookies, was another welcome reminder of holidays past. Like the balance of our dinner, it represented home cooking of the best sort, from a kitchen that any neighborhood would be happy to call its own.