Considering the economy, New London's restaurant scene is doing about as well as could be expected. Some are thriving, others are hanging on, and when one closes, another opens. The scene is dominated by pubs, pizza joints and ethnic eateries. White tablecloth restaurants seem to have a harder time of it, although Chaplin's and Tony D's have loyal followings.
Enter Gaspar's, which opened late last year. Its location on Bank Street might be the perfect spot for a high-end restaurant in the city - far enough from the downtown pubs but close by for those in the city's south end and Waterford.
The restaurant has a bar area with a half-dozen tables, a larger dining room and a small patio. We chose the bar because a window table was available, although it didn't offer us a postcard view.
We went on a Wednesday night, lured by a special of a free bottle of wine with two entrees. Two house reds and two whites were available, and we settled on a Domino pinot grigio that was plenty good enough.
For apps, we were tempted by but passed on a spicy seafood stew (haddock, calamari and shrimp). Instead we started with chili crusted shrimp ($9) and bruschetta ($8). The shrimp was slightly smoky and tender, with the chili providing a decent amount of torque. The bruschetta was not the typical baguette but more of a toast point, which put the focus on the topping of plum tomato, mozzarella and fresh basil, with balsamic and olive oil, for a better-than-most version.
It's beet season, and Gaspar's had a roasted golden beet salad ($9) on the menu and a different beet salad on the specials board. The golden beets were served with walnuts and a gorgonzola cream and pistachio vinaigrette, but this was a rare dish that didn't come together as well as it might have.
The salad and the apps were all beautifully presented. If appetizers give you a good indication where things are headed, then at this point all three of us felt we were in for a special night out.
Gaspar's is not one of those restaurants that has page after page of entrees to pick from; there are eight entrees on the menu and a couple of specials. But there was still plenty to choose from, and we decided on lobster ravioli ($25), bistro steak ($19) and, from the specials board, chicken caprese ($20).
If Gaspar's has a signature dish it's the housemade ravioli. Not only is the pasta stuffed with lobster, but generous chunks of lobster meat can be found among the fresh baby spinach, garlic, diced tomatoes and artichokes, which are all covered by a lemon basil cream sauce and shaved parmesan. An unforgettable dish.
The steak was six finger-length slices of tender sirloin that was cooked as ordered and delicious. I have a pet peeve against the stacking of food - nice to look at it, but not ideal for actually eating. In this instance, the gorgonzola in the salad ended up mostly in the mashed potato, creating a cheesy potato mix that I don't think was the chef's intention.
The third entree was two medallions of chicken smothered beautifully with tomatoes, mozzarella and fresh basil, served over linguine in a creamy sauce that was tasty but a little heavy handed.
Only one of us saved room for dessert - a lemon torte ($8), with a light, whipped center that was a perfect complement to a rich meal. Our waiter told us some of the desserts are made on the premises and others, including the torte, come from a bakery in Hartford.
Gaspar's touts its "new American cuisine," which must mean pairing fresh vegetables with flavorful cheeses (mozzarella, parmesan, gorgonzola, goat, feta) and then drizzling a wide variety of vinaigrettes, including raspberry, pistachio, dijon and lemon. In the end, it all comes together in often spectacular ways.
For a Wednesday night, the restaurant was busy and the bar bustling. Word is out in New London and beyond that, as the menu says, you go to Gaspar's to "taste the good life."