Published January 09. 2014 4:00AM
No matter what the name is on the sign out front, it's one of the most familiar bar/grill locations in New London: the original and most iconic existence was as the Sundowner, but there have been subsequent, shorter ventures as Louie's Bar & Grill and the Hearsay Bar & Grille.
Despite the sequence of ownership groups, the building, with its step-up dining room facing Broad Street and the courthouse, and a cozy back bar area for flat screen sporting events, has always attracted a coterie of regulars who gather there regardless of who's in charge or in the kitchen.
The latest incarnation is the perhaps awkwardly titled Little Galapagos Bar & Grill, though a correct pronounciation actually rolls pleasingly off the tongue - which is appropriate given that the ambitious menu is damned pleasing to the palate.
The interior is instantly familiar to anyone who's been in the place over the years, though there's a new coral paint motif and a spotless approach to cleanliness that seems to emphasize that this is indeed a NEW entity.
The titular "Galapagos" references a group of tropical Ecuadoran islands, and in fact one of the sections of the menu is dedicated to authentic Ecuadoran recipes. Other features from the kitchen include pastas and flatbread pizzas, seafood and steaks, designer sandwiches, and soups, salads and appetizers.
My first examination of the starters drew me at once to the Galapagos shrimp ceviche ($9.95) - but unfortunately they were out of the crustaceans that day. No worries; I tried, instead, a bowl of beef chili. Very nice stuff: plenty of ground beef, tomatoes and toothsome beans, a slow and spicy heat, shredded cheddar atop - and all festooned with four fresh tortilla chips for a crunch factor.
The chili was so impressive that, on a second visit, I decided to check out the New England clam chowder ($3.50 cup, $4.95 bowl). In a region where even gas stations and dollar stores sell cups of chowder, the Galapagos version is traditional and quite good. It's thick, savory, and the clam/potato ratio is balances for a maximum comingling of flavor and texture.
We've sampled representationally from the entree choices. Once, I asked our server for a recommendation from the "Spanish" page - as the menu calls it, though I'm assured they're Ecuadoran recipes. Though there are seafood, chicken, pork and rib dishes, he without hesitation suggested "Chaulafan" ($13.95) - a fried rice dish with shrimp, pulled chicken, mixed vegetables and eggs.
If it sounds vaguely Asian, well, it is - but South American and Mexican cuisines have plenty of rice-based recipes, as well.
I was served a small mountain of Chaulafan, and it's a winner. Plenty of medium-sized grilled shrimp, moist and piquant shreds of chicken, scrambled eggs and diced and quick-fried veggies were all choreographed in a pillowy anchor of lightly oiled and beautifully textured brown rice.
From the flatbread pizza choices, a "pizza salad" ($8.50) delighted my wife. It's a beautiful presentation - a not-small flatbread covered in cheddar cheese with a pretty pile of salad right in the middle. The mixed greens, apples and red onion - she had them hold the bacon - had been diced and tossed lightly in a tangy vinaigrette. As such, it was wonderfully easy to wield a piece of flatbread in one hand while hoisting a forkful of salad in the other.
I've also gone into the seafood section and tried the grilled salmon ($15.95). A generous plank of fresh fish, with grill marks, was crowned with a tangy and chunky avocado salsa. The two innate flavors complemented each other with clashing elements of tang and sweetness. Accompanying coleslaw was crisp and mercifully absent of the mayo/goop factor, and the french fries were very tasty and seemed to be house-fashioned.
By all indications, Little Galapagos is winning over the neighborhood and its tri-partite clientele: the old guard who come to drink in the bar no matter who owns the place, the legal folks who race over for lunch after court, and a new profile of fans seduced by the menu, service and kitchen.