Published July 18. 2013 4:00AM Updated July 18. 2013 12:10PM
The only thing better than discovering a cool new eatery is discovering a cool, long-established eatery. Before I set up house in the Connecticut River Valley, I visited the area extensively and somehow never made it into Mike's Quality Meats & Fine Deli in Old Saybrook. That situation is now corrected, and it's a spot that will remain in regular dinnertime rotation for the foreseeable future.
A few notes: Mike's Deli is more than your standard take-a-number-wait-for-your-turn kind of deli. Small cases offer a selection of meats - smoked and otherwise - and prepared salads, and still more cases along one wall pitch prepared meals like baby back ribs, shepherd's pie and Chicken Piccata, as well as larger catering-size pans of goodness. But take a look at the giant menu board behind the counters, and you'll see where the action happens. Still more options await in an adjoining restaurant, Mike's Restaurant Next Door, a recent addition to the small deli building that serves dinner five nights a week. More on that in a bit. My sampling included tastes from all of the above.
A relative recommended Mike's to me for its breakfast sandwiches, and I see why. What was likely a three-egger arrived in a soft deli roll and ample American cheese ($4.75; other cheese options available). The thing looked absolutely perfect, and what I managed to taste was great, but half the sandwich was a mess of runny egg, which rendered it inedible. (Read: It kept falling apart and dripping hot yolk all over my gear shift.) Since initial bites passed muster and the portion was so very generous, I went for a do-over and ordered another sandwich on a different day. That time it was intact and delicious.
The house chili ($7.95 for a large) delivered only fine flavor and quality. It had healthy heat, a goodly portion of beans and veggies (carrots and peppers for starters), and the meats therein were smoky and nuanced (I'm thinking it was at least a beef/pork blend).
As for those deli sandwiches, either bring a friend to help finish it or order it in a fit of ravenous abandon. Anyone who finishes one of Mike's large sammies should get a prize. A turkey sandwich ($11.95 for the large; $6.75 for a small) might seem pricy, but the amount of bird on that grinder roll could sub in for a family's Thanksgiving main course. Ours was decked with provolone, truly spicy brown mustard, tomato, loads of lettuce and banana peppers (other peppers, cheese, available), and it was absolutely perfect.
Equally impressive was the Tortellini Primavera from the prepared foods case ($12.95 for a huge container of the stuff). Hunks of fresh mozzarella top off a loaded pasta salad of tortellini, mushrooms, spinach and/or broccoli rabe, stewed tomatoes and fresh garlic, from which massive flavor unfolds. The tortellini takes on the flavors of its salad-mates, only bolstering the toothy appeal of these cheese-filled pockets.
Over at the restaurant, diners can expect a seafood-heavy/Italian menu and outstanding customer service. We were greeted and treated like family and became quickly enchanted by the impressive salt and pepper shaker collection on one wall of the cheery beach cottage-y space. As we settled into a seashore frame of mind, we decided on one of the day's specials as an appetizer, shrimp ceviche served with fresh, huge tortillas and guacamole ($10.95). We loved every single aspect of this dish. The salty, warm, crisp tortillas were large enough to easily scoop up the ceviche, which was prepared in heartier form than some of its soupier brethren. Bright with lime, cilantro, garlic and ample shrimp, it was the second best ceviche I've ever had. (The best was homemade by an Ecuadoran friend armed with a family recipe. Stiff competition, indeed.) The chunky, spicy guacamole also is among the best I've tasted.
As for main courses, we kept it classic: me with Chicken Parmesan ($14.95) and the mister with Steak au Poivre with roasted potatoes ($24.95), which is listed as a house specialty. Salads preceded both dishes (my dining partner subbed in a salad for the veg that would've come with his steak), and even the balsamic vinegar dressing mix on my salad was particularly wonderful and well-rounded. It set the stage for the very good meal we went on to enjoy. The chicken, served atop perfectly prepared linguini, retained a crisp exterior under its topping of fresh sauce and mozzarella. The actual chicken flavor was allowed to lend its richness to the crumbly breading, which mixed very well with the tomato-garlic magic happening throughout the dish.
We enjoyed the steak - rolled in black peppercorns, sautéed, and finished with brandy sauce - nearly as much as the chicken parm. Paired with the roasted potatoes (other starch options available) and accented with super-slim curly strips of onion, the steak itself was tender, flavorful and prepared to order (on the rare side of medium rare). Still, we could've dealt with just a little less sauce on top of the sirloin strip. Perfect peppering made the sauce issue nearly moot.
We left Mike's feeling particularly pleased with ourselves. Great service will do that. It's possible I've blown the lid off a great local secret, but every food-lover deserves to know where fresh, delicious food can be enjoyed by people who clearly love what they do.