Liv’s Oyster Bar
3 Fine Dining Stars out of 4
By Robert Rabine
Remember when Main Street Old Saybrook had like two restaurants? The Main Street Tavern at one end of town and The Monkey Farm at the other…with the police station in between, no less. Well, Main Street, OS has quietly become something quite different. Yes, The Monkey Farm and the police station are still there, but in-between you’ve probably noticed that a kind of mini restaurant row has popped up. For my money, or should I say this paper’s money, the best of the Main Street restaurant bunch is Liv’s Oyster Bar, located in the old movie house right smack in the middle of town. The dining room is simple, comfortable and elegant. The two rooms, front and back, are painted beige with lots of dark wood with white table linens. The front room is smaller and quieter and is suitable for intimate occasions. The back room, however, is where all the action is… and the noise level is even tolerable on busy nights. There is a large, well-stocked bar along one wall that looks onto the immaculate kitchen through a picture window. The raw bar is also located here and offers a great selection of pristine oysters, clams, crab and shrimp.
I’ve been to Liv’s numerous times over the years but it has always been more of a social thing for me rather than a culinary adventure. I know the owners and manager well. Upscale yet casual, we always have a good time there with friends. And therein lays my only criticism: it has always been predictable and pleasant rather than exciting…safety first. No culinary brinksmanship here. Think beige instead of primary colors. In that regard, they have recently stepped up their game with a more interesting menu mix. Service is usually quite good although on my first visit (wearing a critic’s hat) the table maintenance was non-existent. Even though every server had to walk by our table to get to the service station, we literally had to keep begging people to remove stuff as they walked by. What, nobody can see the six empty glasses lined up on the edge of my table? On my remaining two visits, service was crisp, knowledgeable and friendly. Seasonings are usually spot-on. Nothing is ever too this or too that, however on my second visit a number of things were really salty. How salty? Like, it burned the roof of my mouth salty. Somebody wasn’t paying attention. Presentation at Liv’s is clean and precise on beautiful white china, although on my last visit: the White Chocolate Snow on the Peppermint Cake was an avalanche rather than a garnish. Stylistically speaking, less is always more.
The medium-sized menu (16 starters and 9 entrees) is eclectic and designed for small plate consumption. The wine list is sizeable with a good selection of new world and old world varietals. I like the separate categories for interesting reds and whites. Thematically, chef-owner John Brescio offers up a decidedly American menu with a few twists on some classic items. To start, try the raw bar. If not, there are lots of fried things: pommes frites dusted with Old Bay Seasonings and mayonnaise, fried oysters with chipotle aioli, fried calamari with Meyer lemon salt and aioli, bacalao fritters with yet more aioli . Or, forgo the fried route altogether and order the baked oysters with leeks and bacon, the stuffed cherrystones with chorizo and onions or the sashimi pizza with, you guessed it, chipotle aioli. Two soups offered a surprise with each. The NE clam chowder (de rigueur on the shoreline) was spruced up with a buttermilk biscuit and the cauliflower soup had some fried capers lurking just below the surface like little salty depth -charges. Quite a few salad selections all looked fresh and properly dressed: hearts of romaine Caesar, a fresh BLT wedge salad with buttermilk ranch dressing, roasted heirloom beet salad with duck confit and frisée, crab salad with grapefruit and simple field greens with manchego.
Liv’s winter entrées are still seafood-centric but the new menu offers a more interesting mix with arctic char and wild mushrooms replacing the requisite salmon, mahi-mahi with the mustard sauce instead of a flaky white fish and Stonington sea scallops paired with baby Brussels sprouts and apple cider. Seared tuna has a fennel -pepper crust with black olive slaw and linguini with clams has broccoli rape pesto and roasted tomatoes. For meat lovers there is a grass-fed 14 oz. strip steak with truffled potatoes, roasted chicken with gnocchi and tomato sauce and a short-rib stroganoff. Interestingly, every entrée has either potato or pasta on the plate, no rice anywhere.
The dessert list is short but they are all house-made: ice cream, a deconstructed peanut -butter- cup-semi-freddo thing, a poached pear with spiced ricotta, deep-dish apple pie and a chocolate stout cake with peppermint crunch and that white chocolate snow drift I mentioned earlier.
What we ate:
Gigamoto Oysters on the ½ Shell $1.50 per piece
Small and sweet they needed nothing but lemon.
Old Bay Fries, Roasted Garlic Mayo $5.25
They come out not too crisp and hot with a dusting of Old Bay Seasoning. Usually great. The Old Bay adds a salty punch. However, on my second visit they were way too salty and almost inedible. Good thing I had my beverage close by.
Crispy Fried Blue Point Oysters $12
Lightly deep fried and placed atop a quenelle of celerí remoulade with chipotle aioli. Great taste combinations here: briny, crunchy, creamy and smoky all in one bite.
Cauliflower Soup $8
Creamy texture with interesting garnishes: salty fried capers, brown butter drizzle and a single seared scallop (which seemed like an after-thought). Tasted more like cream of chicken soup rather than cauliflower.
Hearts of Romaine Caesar Salad $9.50
Cold and crisp, it lacked a lemony zing. Served with anchovies and a parmesan crisp that wasn't.
BLT Salad $8.50
A wedge salad of crisp iceberg, bacon, cherry tomatoes and croutons well-dressed with tangy house-made buttermilk ranch. It was as delicious as it sounds.
Roasted Beet Salad with Duck Confit and Cracklins $10
Beautiful golden beets with luscious duck confit and bitter frisée. The mustard dressing was surprisingly good with the earthiness of the beets but the cracklins were MIA.
Sashimi Yellowfin Tuna Pizza $14
Sushi grade raw tuna layered over a perfectly round grilled flour tortilla. Dressed with the ubiquitous chipotle aioli, it was beautifully pink and fresh tasting. I wish the tortilla was crisper.
8 Oz Angus Hamburger with House-Made Bread and Butter Pickles $12
Cooked perfectly rare as ordered with blue cheese and bacon, lettuce and tomato. It came with a side of fries that was so small I couldn’t find them on the plate. Good thing because they were as wickedly salty as the cheeseburger. Kind of my fault with the blue cheese and bacon, but wow, I’m still dehydrated. Pet peeve: mesclun greens on a cheeseburger.
14 Oz Strip Steak with Creamed Spinach, Baked Potato with Sour Cream and Chives $31
I had it when it was $29, but it was still good. Grilled perfectly rare with a nice crust, I ate the whole 14- oz thing. The baked potato and spinach were quite retro.
Buttermilk Fried Chicken with Sautéed Greens, Jalapeno Cornbread and Tasso Gravy $20
It looked too dark when it came to the table and I was scared. But it was fried perfectly… juicy and crispy at the same time with a peppery crust. The cornbread was light and the gravy was zippy from the Tasso.
Mahogany- seared with a warm salad of fingerling potatoes, leeks, bacon and shrimp with a whole-grain mustard buerre blanc. It was better without the shrimp which were not cooked À la minute, so I pushed them to the side.
Chocolate Stout Layer Cake $8
The loose crumb was almost like a fluffy box cake. It had a light cream-cheesey frosting and a little crushed peppermint. It came with way too much “White Chocolate Snow” as a garnish. The standout on the plate was the pink peppercorn ice cream. Fabulous with the chocolate cake.
What we drank:
“Seaglass” Sauvignon Blanc, Santa Barbara 2007 $7 glass
Crisp and lemon-limey. No wood, matched well with the oysters.
“The Show” Malbec, Argentina 2009 $8 glass
Not too tanic with some dark berry fruit. Disappointing body with no middle…all beginning and finish. Good enough with the Mahi-Mahi.
“Wild Rock Cupid’s Arrow” Pinot Noir, New Zealand $48 bottle
Stewed fruit, earth and licorice. Typically light-weight compared to American pinots or French burgundies. Great with the chicken and so-so with the steak.
Liv’s Oyster Bar
166 Main Street, Old Saybrook, CT 06475
Open Sunday: 5-9 PM
Open Monday, Wednesday, Thursday: 5-10PM
Open Friday and Saturday-5-11 PM
Happy Hour from 4-6 PM Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.
$1 oysters all night on Wednesday
Handicap accessible with parking in the rear of the building