Published November 07. 2013 4:00AM
Sometimes restaurant reviewers, or diners in general, are so busy checking out the new places that they forget the old standbys.
After a morning of apple picking at Whittle's Willow Tree Farm in Groton, we were driving through Mystic looking for a spot to eat lunch, when the Captain Daniel Packer Inne popped into my head.
Talk about an old standby - the Packer was built on the Mystic River more than 250 years ago and is still owned and operated by descendants of the square-rigger captain.
Even though summer was in the rear-view mirror, Mystic was jammed and so was DPI. We were lucky to grab two stools at the bar downstairs, and not long after there was a wait to get in.
The basement pub is a cozy spot, especially during a winter storm when the fire is lit.
Apple picking is tough work so I rewarded myself with a pint of Widmer Hefeweizen, one of my favorite American wheat beers. (Years ago I had lunch at the DPI with owner/brewer Kurt Widmer, but that's a story for a different day.)
We ordered two new menu items: the braised short rib sandwich ($13) and the crab panini ($14). The short rib melted in my mouth, and the spiciness of pepperjack cheese and kicked-up cole slaw was balanced by the mildness of the potato roll.
The panini was jammed with lump crab meat, red onion, fresh avocado and gruyere cheese and served with a tomato coulis dipping sauce.
Both sandwiches were nothing short of awesome, as were the hand-cut fries that came with my sandwich.
We left very happy and determined to return soon for dinner, which we did on Saturday. Thankfully, we thought to call for a reservation because when we arrived there was a wait of an hour and 45 minutes. (Even though DPI has two small parking lots, it can be difficult to find a spot. We ended up paying to park in the Mystic Arts Center lot.)
The building dates to the 1750s, when people were shorter, so the rooms are generally small and the ceilings low. Just getting in the door can be tough because there's not much room for those waiting for a table. The hostess, however, was doing a great job of dealing with the madness and keeping everyone happy.
After a short wait, we were led through the dining room to a narrow staircase that led upstairs, through another dining room and then an area used by servers and finally to what was likely once a small guest room that now holds four tables. Above us was the trap door for the attic. Like with the rest of the place, you'll either be thinking cozy or cramped.
The room had a nautical theme, with drawings of ships on the wallpaper and a model of a ship on a shelf. A gas fireplace was dormant because of the day's warm temperatures.
We started with goat cheese medallions ($9). A bite into the medallions, which were lightly coated with an almond crust, brought a warm stream of the cheese. The medallions were served with a bed of field greens and peanuts. The orange cashew vinaigrette was thin and forgettable, but overall this app was excellent.
My wife, Betty, also had a cup of vegetable soup that was loaded with carrots, potatoes, kidney beans, all sitting in a tasty beef-based broth.
Our server brought us a basket of crusty Italian bread, too, served with a bulb of roasted garlic and butter.
The app menu is extensive and creative, including lobster claws wrapped in phyllo dough, artichoke hearts stuffed with lobster, bread crumbs and Asiago cheese, Korean short ribs, and oysters from Noank and Charlestown, R.I.
There was a gap between the first and second courses, but it was made tolerable by an explanation by our server of how busy the kitchen was and the excellent and affordable wine ($3.50 a glass) from the specials menu.
For dinner, Betty ordered lemon peppered chicken ($20), a boneless chicken breast coated with coarse breadcrumbs, lemon and cracked pepper. The breast is sautéed, then finished in the oven and served with a creamy lemon sauce. There's a reason this is a DPI tradition.
I split the leftovers the next day with our home-from-college daughter who, at first bite, said, "This is really good." That was unanimous.
I was tempted by the Statler chicken breast and a special of wild boar Italian sausage over black pepper fettucine but settled on the lamb chops ($31). The chops were cooked to order and tender, but one of them had too little meat. The lamb is served with mashed parsnips, which left me wishing for the whipped red potatoes that came with the chicken.
Our server informed us that the bakery chef comes in every Monday to make the desserts but has been coming back during the week to make more of the popular pumpkin cheesecake. We could see why. Candied walnuts sat atop the cheesecake, which was in a drizzle of caramel and served with whipped cream and strawberries. It's always nice to end an excellent meal with a "Wow."