Seafood restaurants line Connecticut’s eastern shoreline, but many are either very limited, with choices of fried or broiled, or are so gourmet, one wonders how the seafood can possibly be tasted after it’s been glazed with an emulsion of at least five different ingredients. A middle ground was all I wanted. A place where I could get great local fish, with an option other than butter. And I found it.
Liv’s Oyster Bar in Old Saybrook strikes the perfect balance of great, locally-sourced food, with gourmet influences kept simple. The town is interesting in its own right, having been the home of actress Katharine Hepburn for most her life. The Kate, a local arts centre and theatre, just down the road, is named after the town’s most famous resident.
But Liv’s is more than a neighbourhood place. Owner and chef John Brescio trained at the French Culinary Institute and earned his kitchen whites at New York’s Tavern on the Green, and Judson Grill, before heading to Connecticut to open his own restaurant.
The atmosphere is casual and relaxed, with locals propped up at the oyster bar, where the choice is clams and five different kinds of oysters, all from neighbouring seaside spots. Little flags with the provenance of each oyster make it fun to do a tasting test.
There’s a fantastic cocktail menu, and it took considerable willpower for my sweet tooth to pass up the Oatmeal Cookie Martini. But, I’d rather chew my calories than drink them.
We started with the lump crab salad which melted in my mouth. The crab was sweet, moist and tender – everything it should be. My companions went for tradition, taking the New England clam chowder, which passed muster with a local, and a deconstructed caesar salad.
The appetizers were impressive, but the mains really wowed. Scallops carbonara tasted sinfully rich, creamy and buttery. The scallops were bigger than quarters, and cooked perfectly. The asparagus and shitakes added an illusion that this was a “healthy” dish; an illusion we were quite happy to buy into. The lobster risotto came with sweet lobster tails on top, which had everyone reaching for a taste, and left no one disappointed. But for me, the real star of the meal was the seared yellow fin with a fennel and pepper crust, to my mind, one of the best flavour combinations, and one I wish would appear on more menus.
It’s easy to get tuna wrong. Over-cook by just 30 seconds, and it’s gone. This was divine. I barely remember the broccolini it sat on, which was lovely, but nothing compared to incredible flavour of the tuna and fennel.
It would have been foolish to resist dessert in a restaurant with its own pastry chef, which is not the norm outside big cities in the States, or anywhere, I’d imagine. So we shared two blissful plates. One was a scrumptious almond-coconut cake with milk chocolate frosting. The dense, aromatic, nutty flavours stood out, and were well complemented by the soft, milky chocolate on top. The other, fried peach cobbler was a trio of miniature pies, made with local peaches, and deep fried into little round orbs of sweetness. They were tasty, but the real feature was the home-made sweet corn ice cream. In fact, it’s what made us order it. At first it seemed unusual, but when you think about it, corn is quite creamy, often served that way, and is a natural for ice cream. Somebody call Ben and Jerry’s.
While we were devouring dish after dish, the service was superior. Yes, we’re in America, where we’re bred to give “service with a smile.” But trust me; it is possible to get bad service here, too. The owner was off that night, but his manager ran the house effortlessly and seemed to make everyone feel well looked after.
Owner John Brescio’s New York experience shows. The night we were there, Liv’s ran like a well-oiled machine. It’s rare to find a restaurant that gets absolutely everything right, and can cater to both traditional and slightly more sophisticated palates, but Liv’s pulls it off. I was expecting good food, but this place blew me away. Liv’s is a great excuse for a coastal adventure in Connecticut.
166 Main St
Old Saybrook, CT
+1 860 395 5577