Sometimes a quick winter getaway is as wonderful, if not more so than a summertime getaway. Sometimes when the weather seems at its bleakest and most dismal; when we feel most like hibernating, a little road trip is just what we need to jumpstart our minds and souls. So when I was invited to visit and review the newly renovated Inn at Mystic and Harbour House Restaurant I jumped at the opportunity.
Mystic is just about an hour and a half away from the Southeastern corner of Connecticut where I reside. We were due to leave mid-morning and arrive at lunchtime but the first snow of the season changed our plans slightly. I needed quickly capture some pictures of my sleepy little seaside village under a blanket of snow for a guest piece I have written for Yankee Magazine. (I will share more with you at a later date.)
The Inn at Mystic sits on one of the highest points in Mystic with stunning water views and has long been popular as a destination point for weddings and other special events. The restaurant is popular among locals and tourists alike.
The Harbor House restaurant recently underwent an extensive restoration. The building consists of an upper level area - a large dining room and bar - and a lower level with two smaller, more formal dining rooms with sweeping views of the Long Island Sound. We dined upstairs for lunch and were joined by Tim Brown who owns the property with his business partner Michael D’Amato. As we waited for our food, Tim told us about the restaurant's history, formerly the Flood Tide, and his visions for the property.
Despite its large size, the warm rich woods, deep red leathers and copper ceiling gave the room a cozy, warm and inviting feel on a particularly on a chilly, winter day. The restaurant offers a full-service bar that features 24 beers on tap, some of them craft beers, plus an assortment of traditional favorites and a range of cocktail specialties and wine. Outside boasts a large newly built deck that sees a lot of activity in the warmer months. We sat over by the large windows with incredible views of the Long Island Sound. As Brown continued to chat our food started to arrive. We sampled several different dishes that were selected by Brown.
We started off with the New England Clam Chowder. How can one visit a coastal town without trying such, especially on a cold winter's day? We loved the consistency of this soup, which was neither too rich nor too creamy, made with hickory smoked bacon and cherrystone clams. The soup had a nice smokiness to it, was filled with fresh, sweet clams and little bites of potato. What we liked most about this soup, was the addition of paprika oil drizzled over the top which added yet another element of smokiness.
Next to come to the table were the Flood Tide Crepes, an historic house favorite that Brown kept on the menu at the request of his customers. A plate of 3 crepes was presented to us with lobster and mushrooms in a Madeira cream sauce. The huge chunks of lobster did not disappoint. Next to arrive, piping hot, at the table was the Wood Fired Mac and Cheese. While this is not something I would ordinarily order (must watch my girlish figure!) I will gladly steer everyone to this dish. The "mac" was neither the elbows or shells often used in this type of dish, but orecchiette, which worked perfectly, Wisconsin cheddar cheese and huge chunks (full claws!) of lobster that are topped with panko bread crumbs and then baked in the exposed brick oven.
We also had the Tuna Tacos. while fresh and flavorful, these tacos didn't stand out from the crowd. The Copper River Salmon, in a sweet and savory rub came next, in a small, hot cast iron skillet over a bed of spinach with roasted potatoes. And finally, we were treated to a platter of Jumbo shrimp and delicious Noank Oysters. It should be noted, for the locals, and those nearby, that during happy hour, every Monday through Friday from 3:00-6:00 pm, you can get $1 oysters with your wine, beer or cocktails.
Stuffed from much too much good food, we decided to quickly check into our room before heading back out to walk through the town of Mystic. The Inn was recently renovated - it was clean and fresh, but I would not say it was modern by any means. Some of the rooms have fireplaces and jacuzzis in them and I'd suggest asking for one of those rooms - especially if you're looking for a relaxing and romantic getaway. Our room was clean but non-descript, it was sort of what you might expect from a New England roadside inn that seems more like a motel than an inn. We deposited our bags and drove into town.
There's quite a bit to do in Mystic in the wintertime. The old port is beautiful, but may be quite chilly in winter, so bundle up! Olde Mystic Village has lots of shopping - quaint, touristy boutique type stores. The aquarium is thoroughly enjoyable and is open year round, but do check first in case of inclement weather. (They close in substantial snow.) West Main Street in the town of Mystic is charming with lots of boutique shops, a wonderful bookstore, and some bars and restaurants where you can pop inside and to up with a warm cup of coffee or crisp mug of beer. There's an arts center and the Florence Griswold Museum is in Old Lyme. During the early 20th century, the Lyme Art Colony (located in Miss Florence Griswold’s boardinghouse) became America’s most famous summer art colony. Today this museum shares the story of how Connecticut played a pivotal role in fostering an authentic American art.
We meandered up and down West Main Street and in and out of the charming shops, before stopping in at a local restaurant, The Ancient Mariner, for a drink before heading back to the hotel to rest up before dinner. More food - how could we possibly?!
Fortunately we scheduled a late dinner and returned to the restaurant just after 8:00pm. This time we were seated at a lovely window-side table downstairs in the formal dining room with the fireplace. Despite the dreary weather the Harbour House was quite lively that night.
We perused the dinner menu and decided to start with the Native Calamari served Tuscan style with feta, olives and marinara. We loved the idea of them doing something a little different here but were slightly disappointed. The calamari was good - flavorful and crispy - but we felt as though the feta was sort of deposited upon it as an afterthought. We still believe that this dish has potential to stand out and think that the kitchen ought to play around with it some more. I have some ideas for this...
For our entrees we ordered the Stonington Scallops and the Lobster Roll. Really we wanted to try so much more, but our already full stomachs had just so much room. We ordered our scallops blackened which came on a bed of mashed potatoes. They were truly cooked to perfection and loaded with flavor. My lobster roll didn't disappoint either. I'd been craving one for quite a while and this one hit the spot. Mine was served up warm on a just slightly buttered roll. I like it that way. I do not want to taste too much butter when I eat my lobster rolls - I want to enjoy the sweetness of the fresh meat. As in our earlier dishes, they were more than generous with their lobster portions. The large, crispy fried potatoes that accompanied my sandwich were great too - and served as the perfect accoutrement. Perfectly content with all the food we'd consumed, we opted not to get more dessert but continued on with our wine and beer. Yet, despite this two desserts were brought over to us. We sampled a divine Pumpkin Cognac Cheesecake and an over the top decadent Chocolate Marquis made with Grand Marnier. I happen to love chocolate and orange and this didn't disappoint - neither did the cheesecake, and I'm not really a cheesecake person. Both of these phenomenal desserts were made by Harbor House's pastry chef.
At around 9:00, maybe it was 9:30, the band started to play and at that point, even downstairs in the quiet, formal dining room, it was getting hard to carry on an intimate conversation. We did for a while then decided to go upstairs to the bar where we found a local band playing some good ol' 80s tunes to a large local crowd who were thoroughly enjoying themselves. We bellied on up to the bar, settled in and enjoyed the scene. The band was decent, but most importantly, the crowd was lively. For locals looking for a fun night out this seemed to have been the place to be. When the band hung up their instruments, we headed over to our room at the Inn and settled in for the night.
The inn was pleasantly quiet. We didn't hear any of our neighbors, and despite being on the ground level, right off the parking lot, we didn't hear much from the outside either.
The next morning, as we were getting ready to check out and take a drive through some of the surrounding towns, we contemplated trying someplace else for breakfast, but decided to use the breakfast voucher that came with our room and try breakfast. The dining room in the bar area was clean and bright with no trace of last night's bar crowd. The sun shone in brightly, and the crowd seemed slightly different as well. Perhaps other hotel guests, or a different local crowd. We had one last chance to try the Harbour House menu. And truth be told, I was rather looking forward to the breakfast and brunch menus. We ordered the Lox and Bagel and the French Toast. The bagel and lox were good - and hard to believe but it is possible to mess this up. As a New Yorker I can say the bagel passed the test. But it was the French Toast that really got me. Their version is made from a baguette dipped in a cinnamon vanilla batter and served with fresh Maple syrup, accompanied by strawberries and whipped cream. The cinnamon and vanilla really stood out to add an incredible flavor yet did not overwhelm. After sampling the French toast I wished we had ordered one of the egg dishes instead of the bagel and lox. For those wanting something on the sweeter side, I fully recommend their French toast - it was one of the better ones I've had.
My overall summary:
The Inn was was lovely, and very basic. You really want one of the rooms with a fireplace. If you're looking for someplace a little more luxurious, this won't be the place for you. While our stay was incredibly quiet and relaxing, I do wonder how quiet the front facing rooms are in the summertime when more people are outside, in the parking lot and in the pool.
The Harbour House Restaurant was lovely. We really enjoyed both the casual setting of the bar area, and the more intimate setting of the more formal dining room. We had a few really great items off the menu. Most was pretty standard - good, but not over the top. The beer selection was impressive. As were the prices. The food, and drink, were priced incredibly well. I would easily stop back for a bite and a drink en route to Newport or Maine this summer. I'd love to experience the outside deck when the weather is nice.
Owner Tim Brown and his staff went above and beyond the call of duty. They were courteous, attentive, and incredibly polite. The customer service here is excellent.
I think the Harbour House is still trying to figure out what it is exactly and where it fits in with the restaurant scene in the area. I applaud any establishment for trying to figure out what works and what doesn't in order to keep the dining rooms full and the customers happy. The nighttime bar crowd, for example, differed from the breakfast crowd, which differed from the dinner crowd. I can see that Harbor House will quickly become a hit with the locals looking for a great night out, but I think it can be so much more than that.
On a scale of 1-5 sailboats I'd give the Inn at Mystic and Harbour House Restaurant 3.5 boats.
For more information about the hotel, restaurant and all their offerings, please visit their website.