Published July 17. 2014 4:00AM
Skippers Dock on Stonington Harbor was beloved by some, if not for its food and dining room atmosphere, then certainly for its deck and its glorious view, each enhanced by the bewitching tug of nostalgia felt by so many who had made the tired old place part of their summer routine.
These big shoes are now filled by Swooner, transformed but still linked to that deck and view. Gone is the dark, crowded dining room, replaced by an open, light-filled space. The deck remains the same, topped partially by a snappy brown-striped awning and ringed with tables, most shaded by their own umbrella.
The dock stretching out into the harbor has been completely redone, providing a solid landing for patrons who arrive by boat.
But the biggest change can be found on the new menu, whose fresh offerings showcase the region's fine local seafood and the chef's creative touch and attention to detail.
On our first visit, dinner on a Wednesday night, our hostess asked whether we'd like to sit inside or out. It was the end of a hot, humid day, so we gladly chose the deck and were led to a two-top along the railing. I slipped into the harbor-facing seat, and rather than watch the parking lot all night, my husband slid his chair to the side of the table in order to share the harbor view.
Our waiter approved of the shift and took our drink order, a Boddingtons on draft for me, $5, and a bottled East Coast Porter, $5, for my husband, which we sipped while we took in the sunset and the cooling of the day.
The menu's list of entrées is short, just 11 choices, but it covers all the bases. There are three pastas, four seafoods, and one each featuring chicken, beef, pork and lamb. Fighting for attention are a raw bar menu, replete with local clams and oysters, seafood salads and shrimp, an intriguing selection of small plates and snacks, a couple of chowders, three salads and an array of sides.
I started with the roasted beet salad with whipped horseradish ricotta, candied pecans and baby greens, $9.95, and for a main course chose mezza rigatoni in a sausage ragout, offered in two sizes, $14 and $22. My husband ordered the smoked bluefish paté with pickles and toasts, $6.95, from the small plates menu, and the grilled hanger steak with a sweet and sour onion slice, cottage fries and steak sauce, $24.95.
The tendency to linger in the view does not seem to be frowned upon at Swooner. We took a while to make our selections and, although our waiter checked in on us periodically, there was no sense that he was in a rush. On this gorgeous summer night, this leisurely pace to us seemed just right.
My beet salad looked as good as it tasted. Shiny beets rested on a bed of ricotta and, although I didn't detect any horseradish, there was a lovely lemon essence throughout, a great foil for the creamy ricotta, the sweet beets and the slightly bitter baby greens. Edible petals sprinkled over the top provided a joyful finish.
My husband's bluefish paté was served in a tiny canning jar alongside baguette toasts, pickled cauliflower florets, red pickled onion slices and tiny, tart cornichon, a perfect sweet and sour accompaniment to the rich, smoky yet delicate bluefish. This small plate is a real winner and a bargain to boot.
The rigatoni arrived al dente, and the sausage ragout tasted as if it had been simmered for hours, the meat tender and the sauce filled with its flavor. The hanger steak was tender and perfectly grilled to order, and the cottage fries - golden brown potato wedges - were crispy on the outside and moist on the inside, delicious when dunked in the house-made steak sauce.
Our next visit was for an early afternoon, Saturday lunch. Again, we chose the deck, under the awning this time. I ordered a special, mussels steamed in white wine, butter and parsley, $11, and the New England oyster chowder, $8.95, but was told they were out of the chowder. Instead I opted for the open-face, blackened fish sandwich, made that day with bluefish, with lettuce, tomato, avocado and relish, $13.95. My husband picked the chicken liver mousse with pickled fennel and raisins, $6.95, and the crispy smoked fish cakes with tartar sauce and slaw, $10.95, both from the small plates menu.
The mussels were plump and juicy, typically prepared. They would have benefitted from a bit of bread to sop up that wonderful broth. The fish sandwich was a delightful surprise. Just the right amount of blackening spice coated the outside of the succulent, perfectly charred fish. Below was a slice of tomato, so fresh it may have been plucked from the vine that morning, a layer of lettuce and then an avocado mash, all atop a slice of brioche. The "relish" turned out to be a bold cucumber concoction that really rounded out the dish. Although the overall texture was soft - nothing crunched - the complexity of flavors made me not care.
The chicken liver was another tasty bargain, its luxurious richness tempered by its sweet-and-sour fennel companion. But the winner of the meal may have been those two generous fish cakes - lightly smoky, very crispy, loaded with fish and served with a tangy tartar sauce and mound of vinegary slaw, a delightful modern take on a traditional favorite, not unlike the restaurant itself.
In Swooner's brief existence, reviewers on various social media sites have not been kind. In fact, they have been brutal. Their vitriolic complaints have targeted the food and the service alike, and I have no doubt that most of them are a true reflection of that diner's experience.
But I would suggest that it's no easy task to open a restaurant at the height of the season. Yes, Swooner is having some growing pains - at lunch, I overheard another waiter tell a nearby table about a second special, a Caesar salad with fried oysters on top, that our waitress had failed to mention - but overall, if my experience is any judge, a bit of tolerance will get you a memorable meal.