Robert Rabine reviews Old Saybrook's Liv's Oyster Bar
Remember when there were like two restaurants on Main Street in Old Saybrook? 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, Old Saybrook 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 could 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 nine entrées) 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 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 surprises. The New England 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, and 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 had broccoli rabe 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 housemade: ice cream, a deconstructed peanut butter cup semi-freddo, 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.