Published August 09. 2012 4:00AM Updated August 09. 2012 11:01AM
It's always a mystery to me that the parking lots of big chain restaurants overflow while locally owned places struggle.
It seems that a person would respond just one time to the seductiveness of the endless whatever bowl and then, having tasted it, would go searching for a place that really cooks.
Because the best dining is the fare of a chef who chooses fresh ingredients and then decides what to make of them.
And because personal is always better when it comes to cuisine, right? Because once people experience that special touch, they'll be back, right?
Almost always right.
Tucked into the user-friendly Old Lyme Marketplace is Jessie's Restaurant, which serves lunch and dinner six days a week in a very pretty split-level dining room. Ochre walls and a blue-grey ceiling make it cozy and original framed art makes it interesting.
Chef Nick Dion produces a menu of the familiar (calamari, clam chowder, lobster bisque, steaks) and the slightly different (homemade potato chips with gorgonzola dip, grilled salmon on risotto, cheesecake married to bananas and caramel). Dion was one of four chefs competing in the BEAT Shoreline Chef competition July 28 at the Old Lyme Midsummer Festival.
On an August evening the menu featured fresh produce - cherry tomatoes, Yukon gold potatoes - and a variety of meats, seafood and pasta dishes.
What we ate was very good, but what we couldn't eat - because it had run out by 6 p.m. on a Sunday - was disappointing: no more of the special sole amandine; nothing that called for clams, which eliminated the white and red sauces and modified the cioppino. The first two of the six desserts (not counting Buck's ice creams, gelatos and sorbets) also were out.
Still, that left more than a dozen entrees to intrigue us, so the two of us had three. As an appetizer we split an order of the Pappardelle entree ($18) that the restaurant has proudly entered in a competition you can read about on its Facebook page.
The dish is picture-worthy: bright yellow lemony sauce flecked with slivered dark green basil douses ribbons of noodle so long you could tie them on pigtails. Whole, perfectly cooked cherry tomatoes, roasted garlic cloves and melting mozzarella balls complete the dish.
Yet even with the freshly grated cheese and black pepper administered by the server, the dish tasted tamer than it looked and some of the noodles were on the hard side of al dente. Served in a soup bowl, it lacked a spoon for the broth-like sauce.
Our other two entrees excelled. Braised short rib with risotto and spinach ($23) was presented off the bone in a rich brown sauce tasting like Essence de Sunday Pot Roast. The risotto was cooked to exactly the right texture and perfectly offset the rich meat. Marcella Hazan would applaud.
The Statler (Airline) Grilled Chicken ($16), served on a cold salad of field greens, artichoke hearts, cherry tomatoes and capers, may be the best value on the list of entrees that get close to $30. The Cornish hen breast came off the grill well cooked but still juicy - just right and delicious. The drumstick end was a bit pink, but that's the way it goes with white meat, dark meat.
The sorbet flavors ($7) on the dessert menu included coconut, mango and mojito. The first of those is frozen in a coconut shell and we were allowed to top it with hot fudge. If the fudge overwhelmed the light sorbet, that was our fault.
We also had a nice, not too heavy slice of cheesecake ($8) lightly frosted with creme brulee and decorated with wisps of caramel.
All nicely done - and yet, the dining room management at Jessie's needs work: No staff talking on a cellphone within earshot of the tables. No standing over politely listening diners while their plates get cold. And definitely no pulling up a chair and complaining about the hardships of running a restaurant.
In an intimate setting that aims for fine dining, such as Jessie's, the key is to greet and treat people personally, not to impose on their privacy.
Real hospitality makes the personal touch look easy. And that would make people come back.