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These days, the crumbly biscuits are served with an equally sweet butter (blended with honey). But the New England clam chowder is the same as it always was, thick with clams and potatoes and cream. I prefer the chowder to the Maine lobster bisque, which has a lovely, creamy consistency and a few chunks of lobster meat. (I've never ordered the bisque when it wasn't served lukewarm or colder.) But both soups are so decadently rich that a cup, never mind a bowl, can be too filling as a prelude to a meal. Why can't it be served in, say, a demitasse version?
The appetizer selection still boasts most of the Bristol standbys -- freshly shucked oysters, fluffy baked crab cakes, steamed mussels -- but Executive Chef Dan Uche has done well by the newer offerings, particularly a jumble of calamari flash-fried with julienned carrots and bits of tongue-scalding jalapeño. Half a dozen plump sea scallops are pan-seared and tidily arranged around a mound of brown rice splashed with a tart, Chinese-style vinaigrette and festooned with a tangle of orange, purple and green ribbons created from artfully sliced carrots, beets and cucumbers.
"It looks like a Christmas gift," said my friend Martha, who then used her fork as a fencing foil to keep me from grabbing the last thick circle of a pinkish-red hothouse tomato topped with a milky wedge of fresh mozzarella from a salad described on the menu as "mozzarella and vine-ripened tomato." The flavorless tomato might have been plucked from a vine, but I'll bet it wasn't one that ever saw natural sunlight. Still, the fruit and the cheese had been dramatically arranged on a bed of freshly chopped spinach with a little mint and a discreet splash of balsamic vinaigrette for a salad that at least looked summery.
Maybe it was seasonal wistfulness that possessed us to order a tomato salad on the dreariest of chilly nights. The longing for the balmier days of summer certainly provided a good excuse for Martha and Debbie to choose two featured fish specials prepared with a distinctly Latin American beat. Chef Uche gave a little cha-cha action to a flaky fillet of Chilean sea bass, searing it with ancho chiles and a dash of paprika-infused oil, then draping it over a pile of garlic mashed potatoes and cloaking it with a relish of roasted sweet corn and peppers. A hunk of mahi mahi, meanwhile, was grilled over mesquite, basted with a lusciously potent, Cognac-scented barbecue sauce and given extra fire with a punchy roasted-vegetable salsa.
I took a less adventurous route, going with a bowl of linguini drenched in a butter sauce that was liberally laden with white wine but wasn't as "spicy" as the menu suggested. But who needs the novelty of heat when there's such a bounty of shellfish? There seemed to be a curl of pink shrimp or a clump of sweet lobster meat tucked under every other buttery noodle.
A few nights later, my friend Marilyn and I tackled the seafood mixed grill. This proved to be the culinary equivalent of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, with its subjects either grilled or baked and served on a big china platter. Marilyn sent four grilled shrimp back to the kitchen to be tossed on the fire again ("Seriously undercooked!") and let me gobble down the pillowy, smoky-flavored scallops. We shared the perfectly grilled salmon as well as a handball-sized crab cake that proved to contain flaky crabmeat and little else.