CHARLES T. CLARK
I don't eat a great deal of red meat, but if my doctor told me to cut it out entirely, I'd move to Old Saybrook and console myself with the marvelous and varied seafood dishes at Liv's Oyster Bar.
In some ways, Liv's might be the most satisfying restaurant in this richly endowed restaurant community. The kitchen routinely produces excellent meals, reasonably priced, well served, and without an ounce of pretension. It didn't let me down last fall when the one person I know who could be called a "food expert" asked where we could meet for dinner. Indeed, Liv's found another convert.
Another friend and I met there recently on a cold and quiet Monday night. The kitchen wasn't offering any specials - no surprise, given traditionally light Monday turnouts.
The brief menu includes a number of compelling dishes. A separate list of oysters - six, from the east coast, Pacific Northwest, and Canada - were featured on the night of our visit. I'd had Liv's impeccably fresh oysters (on the half shell) many times in the past, and on this occasion we tried a selection of four luscious baked Blue points (Connecticut) topped with an artichoke, bacon, leek, and light bread crumb mixture that would have been better if slightly crisped under the broiler. And to be honest, in this small quantity, it was impossible to determine what if anything artichoke added to the formula.
We passed on one of Liv's most successful dishes - cauliflower soup with brown butter, capers, and a slice of sea scallop, which I've enjoyed in the past. Among the other dishes that beckoned were roast beet salad, salt cod fritters, and a "BLT salad" with buttermilk Ranch dressing.
The raw bar menu includes oysters, clams, shrimp, and crab claws. They can be ordered individually or via a sampler for $38.
Tiny Maine mussels were served in an addictive, light mustardy sauce, which my partner refused to return to the kitchen once the mussels had been devoured. Perfect for sopping.
These first courses were accompanied by a basket of decent if not outstanding French fries that had been dusted with Old Bay seasoning (just a hint) and were served with tiny crocks of garlic aioli and tomato catsup.
Short ribs - tasty and versatile - are omnipresent on local menus, and Liv's prepared them in the manner of a Stroganoff, with a rich, creamy, mushroom-infused sauce, and served on a bed of homemade fettuccine. The four plump and tender portions of beef were cooked to a velvety finish and seasoned perfectly, no hint of over salting.
As for seafood, on our quiet Monday night, the kitchen was featuring Mahi Mahi, Yellowfin Tuna, and Arctic Char. There was also shrimp risotto that appears on the menu occasionally, and it was mighty hard to tear myself away from it (good risotto being hard to come by).
We chose the Char (as I have often in the past), which is, evidently, a farmed crop without some of the negative environmental issues associated with other farmed fish. It is closely related to salmon. And looks not unlike it.
The kitchen presented the Char filet on a bed of broccoli rabe, plump new potatoes, and a scattering of succulent Hen-of-the-Woods mushrooms. It was christened with cippolini onion vinaigrette. These are assertive partners, but the dish worked beautifully, with even the boisterous broccoli rabe lowering its voice on this occasion.
Other main courses include a sirloin steak with mushrooms, potatoes, and Swiss chard; roast free-range chicken with Italian sausage and gnocchi; and Stonington scallops. Liv's menu is carefully thought out, absent novelty for novelty's sake, and takes into consideration a variety of tastes.
A few slices of bread - baguette and whole grain - arrived at the start of the meal and were cheerfully replenished when needed for the mussel broth.
The dessert list was short and included the requisite chocolate and peanut-butter concoctions. We shared a three-tier caramelized pear and mascarpone Napoleon - superb contrast of sweet pear, crunchy pastry, and rich, silken cheese. It was garnished with a sprinkling of pecan crumble. The plate was finished with caramel sauce and a scoop of maple ice cream.
The staff of Liv's has maintained a praiseworthy degree of consistency since The Day first reviewed the oyster bar in late 2006. There's nothing showy about Liv's, and therein lies one of the reasons for it's allure. The first, of course, is its marvelous cooking.