Published February 23. 2012 4:00AM Updated March 01. 2012 4:38PM
In the 1970s, one of many decades in which New London was trying for a renaissance - at that particular time, by cobbling (and hobbling) State Street - the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, was having better luck.
Portsmouth rejuvenated its downtown by featuring the infancy of the foodie movement. The restaurant that made the biggest splash was The Blue Strawbery. Chef James Haller wrote a cookbook filled with combinations like swordfish in coffee brandy and sour cream, most of which he claimed to have thought up over a blender into which he poured a little of this or that and a lot of melted butter.
I thought of James Haller last week when we dined at Bank Street's ambitious new restaurant, The Commoner. He came to mind because the special, which I ordered and loved, was striped bass coated with a delicate vanilla bean reduction and served on a sort of minced vegetable croquette with sauteed Swiss chard.
Haller would recognize a kindred imagination in The Commoner's chef and co-owner, Colin Sepko, and that's good for the restaurant scene and the general downtown ambience in New London.
I love the name. The Commoner will be serving burgers and chowder to walk-in tourists in a shipshape restaurant that evokes happy vacation memories of no-frills dockside eateries. But the name is also a sly understatement for dinner patrons, in particular, who will find plenty that's uncommon on the menu.
Open just a few months, The Commoner started out with mixed grassroots reviews. Since the restaurant is making its reputation serving lunch and dinner, we went to one of each.
What we found is a promising establishment that has been working out the kinks.
The youthful restaurateurs are Sepko and his wife, Amy, who for two years have been running a shoreside restaurant at Crescent Beach, where much of Niantic seems to eat Sunday breakfast. Colin's family owns the nearby Franklin, a century-old guesthouse. Before the couple's move to Connecticut, Colin Sepko worked as an executive chef in southern New Jersey.
On the Friday night when we visited The Commoner, all eight tables in the dining room were filled, mostly with people from New London, Waterford and Stonington whose curiosity (or their tickets to the Garde or a Connecticut College concert) had brought them in.
Nobody knew I was there to review the place, and yet a gamut of acquaintances stopped us on the way to our table to recommend the chicken pot pie, the signature crab cakes or the three-hummus appetizer. Enthusiasm ran high.
For appetizers, we enjoyed the house specialty of three potato skins rebaked with a stuffing of lobster chunks, bacon, smoky Gouda horseradish cream and caramelized spicy onions, and "Ale Mussels" steamed in Belgian white ale and copiously flecked with mustard seed and diced chorizo.
Besides the bass, we had a regular menu item, roast chicken. It turned out to be one side of a Cornish hen, more thigh than breast but perfectly roasted and accompanied by perfectly steamed asparagus and new potatoes that could have been a bit less greasy.
Other dishes we'd have liked to try were pan-seared salmon on a bed of couscous (the large, pearly size known as Israeli couscous) with diced eggplant, tomatoes and feta, finished with a roasted garlic honey glaze and roasted red pepper jam, or maybe the wild mushroom ragout.
Most spectacularly unexpected was one of three desserts on that night's menu: raspberry cheescake rangoon - which is to say small pastries filled with melting raspberry cheesecake and deep-fried in the style of the well-known appetizer, crab rangoon. Gorgeous to look at and even better to eat.
The subject of deep-frying brings us to lunch, which brings us to deep-fried pickles: they are not common in this part of the world, but they're a lot of fun to try, tangy and crispy at the same time. Other lunch choices were uneven, with the crab cakes getting rave reviews and The Common Burger just another burger.
But that's minor. Amy Sepko is running an attentive and efficient dining room, and her husband can really cook. Welcome to Bank Street.