Married for one year. Still can’t believe it, although in some ways it feels much longer. (Trust me, that’s not a negative.)
To celebrate, we decided to spend a weekend at the Connecticut shoreline, with visits to Groton, Mystic, Stonington and Westbrook. Naturally, our celebration involved a lot of seafood and local wine.
The best meal, however, was our anniversary dinner at Westbrook’s Cafe Routier. From first cocktail to the final bites of entrees, our experience was outstanding.
We discovered Cafe Routier while planning our wedding at Water’s Edge Resort and Spa, just a half-mile down the road in Westbrook. My first instinct is to describe it as a French bistro. But that’s not accurate, because its constantly-changing menu covers so much ground.
The dinner menu is divided into three sections. The first is its “regional menu,” which features a different world cuisine every eight weeks. When we visited, Routier had recently transitioned from the offerings of Andalusia to the exotic tastes of New Zealand. The second menu section, “seasonal,” featured dishes with locally-sourced ingredients, including lobster and corn pot de creme and pan-seared Bomster scallops. Last – but certainly not least – is its “specialty” menu, with anchored bistro classics available year-round. Here, you’ll find moules marinieres, steak frites, fried oysters and “campstyle” grilled trout.
If you’re eating in the restaurant’s hugely popular “mood lounge,” you can choose tapas and small plate selections like pastelitos, bulgogi, Szechuan dumplings, mini Kobe burgers and even a duck gyro. The possibilities are endless.
The problem with a menu this broad in scope is that You. Just. Want. Everything. And the thought of having to pick just one entree makes you break into a cold sweat (or maybe that’s just me.) But here’s another area where Routier excels – their waiters are highly-trained, consummate professionals that seem to know the menu backward and forward. (An amazing feat, considering how often it rotates.) Our waiter, John, was phenomenal from start to finish.
For starters, we picked the moules marinieres (mussels with white wine, tomatoes, garlic, shallots and saffron) paired with Routier’s famous house-made fries. John, correctly anticipating our love of the flavorful broth, slipped us some extra bread to soak it up. As much as we savored those mussels, though, the frites stole the show – twice-fried, a nice shower of salt, possibly clinically addictive when submerged in the tangy dipping sauce. If I were the one of the restaurant’s owners, I’d store that recipe under lock and key. Piquant and sharp, it has a thinner consistency than an aioli, with a not-quite-mayonnaise flavor. As it is, I wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to recreate it at home. I just know I wanted to lick the container clean.
Entree selection proved to be much more difficult. I had it down between three: the regular steak frites plate, with mustard butter and watercress greens; the herb-and-piquillo marinated hanger steak with a roasted tomato demiglace, Yukon Gold and parmesan gratinee and garlic rapini from the seasonal menu and, from the New Zealand menu, the broiled Arctic char with a curry crust with a ginger/Pinot Gris sweet-and-sour broth, coconut-mango sticky rice and snow pea salad. Now, do you see why I was so distressed?
Rob, torn between several dishes himself, asked John for recommendations. And this is where our waiter truly excelled, giving honest appraisals of each entree’s merits – to the point where I was a bit startled when he said he’d suggest many other meals before the New Zealand lamb porterhouse. Not that the lamb wasn’t good, he explained – just that other dishes were better. We appreciated his candor.
So it was hanger steak for me, and New Zealand seared venison for my husband of one year – and two John-recommended glasses of Routier’s house Chilean Cabernet. My steak was textbook-perfect on the medium rare. More spectacular was the earthy mix of herb and pepper marinade, paired with the rich, deep tomato demiglace. The gratinee, shaped like a layer cake, was cheesy carbohydrate heaven, and the garlicky sauteed broccoli rabe inspired me to eat my greens more frequently.
The New Zealand venison had so many unusual details, it required a factcheck against Routier’s website and a few clicks on Wikipedia and Google Images. The tenderloin was bathed in a kiwi gastrique (a fruit reduction sauce) and served with smoked kumara puree (New Zealand’s version of the sweet potato) and oven-roasted sunchoke chips.
Now that you’re fully educated, here’s a photo. Rob loved the complex mix of tastes and textures, but wished the meat could have been cooked more medium-rare. From what I’ve read about venison, this is difficult to do so since it’s such a lean meat.
Our only regret about the meal is that we didn’t stick around for dessert. The top layer of our wedding cake was defrosting back at our hotel, along with a bottle of 1998 vintage Dom Perignon. Cafe Routier’s pastry chefs are absolute magicians. At the end of our last visit there, in late August 2009, we shared a caramel-chocolate turtle cake that was pure poetry. And this is coming from someone without a major sweet tooth.
Cafe Routier Bistro & Lounge, 1353 Boston Post Road, Westbrook. 860-399-8700, caferoutier.com.