Charles T. Clark
Octagon Steakhouse, tucked into the Mystic Marriott and hidden from neighboring I-95 by a thicket of trees, remains an eminent destination for serious diners. You might never know it.
A chum and I recently visited the restaurant, waving goodbye to another summer clam shack in preference for more complex fare. Run by The Waterford Group, which manages a number of Connecticut hotels and restaurants, Octagon celebrated its tenth anniversary in June. It looks fresh as a daisy with its bright, shiny surfaces, floor-to-ceiling glass-partition wine rack, and colorful artwork. Octagon is evidence that the trend in serious hotel dining remains alive, although there were hardly more than a dozen guests during our two-hour dinner. We were compelled to ask out waiter if that was an aberration. Evidently, it was.
Octagon bills itself as a steakhouse, but its menu will please all but a vegetarian, with a small selection of beef, chicken and fish. It's moderate to expensive for dinner; expect to spend around $150 for two, with wine, tip, and tax. In true steakhouse fashion, side orders are extra, so that helps push the bill up. Fortunately, on the night of our visit, everything was worth the expense.
Our excellent server, who was a great help steering us to the right red wine (a superb Malbec) recited the brief list of evening specials, which included prime rib and Blue Point oysters. Since the menu is brief, selections are easily made.
First courses include standards like French onion soup, crab cakes, and Caesar salad. We were eating light, so we shared an excellent asparagus, Maryland crab, and arugula salad bound in the lightest dressing. All of the constituents were first rate, including the barely crisp asparagus and the sweet, salty, and plump nubbins of crabmeat. Scattered toasted breadcrumbs provided a crisp counterpoint. My partner deemed it the best salad he'd had in ages. The salad was $12; other starters range from $9 to $14.
A 14-ounce Black Angus steak ($32) was very nearly perfect: cooked medium rare as requested, gorgeously charred and flavorful, and served with a light brandy and green peppercorn sauce that added a nice kick. A succulent head of roast garlic complemented the steak, while a sprinkling of salt made it all perfect.
Other sauces are available, including Béarnaise, as well as compound, flavored butters.
If you aren't a fan of beef, there are several alternatives, including pan-seared duck breast and roast organic chicken. Mahi-mahi was both an evening special (served atop noodles) and a standard, wrapped in a banana leaf and served with coconut basmati rice. Our server helped by suggesting his preferences.
Like the steak, our order of seared organic salmon (also $32), served atop a bed of crisp, julienned celery root, was beyond reproach. The tender salmon had a crisp exterior but remained succulent and pink inside, and had been carefully seasoned.
We paired our main courses with whipped potatoes enriched by a tart, tarragon-infused Béarnaise, and a first rate casserole of baked cauliflower au gratin. Diners can also complement their steaks and seafood with sautéed spinach, lobster macaroni and cheese, roasted mushrooms, or grilled asparagus.
At the start of our meal, the wine was served with slices of a good, warm, cheesy bread with a lemony olive tapenade and butter. It was swiftly replenished. Desserts - few surprises among the choices - are made off-site and in-house, and included crème brulée, cheesecake, ice cream, and a trio of chocolate creations.
We settled on cherry clafoutis, a traditional French baked custard studded with dark cherries and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. You never see this inspiration on regional menus, and it was a treat, a souvenir of visits to southern France decades ago.
If this restaurant were situated in an urban location, or in a prosperous suburban village, I think it would have been packed. Two of Groton's finest restaurants - Mirch Masala and Octagon - are situated in a Ramada and a Marriott, respectively; one has to wonder if a lingering bias against hotel dining still exists.
Our server assured us there are busy nights. Prices are stiff, comparable to the casino's high-end offerings, and perhaps there's the rub. And yet I hope our experience was an aberration. Everything about our evening was exemplary. Octagon does add a certain luster to the region's inconsistent dining scene.