It was not without some wistfulness that the folks from the Grist Mill abandoned their previous quarters on the banks of the Farmington River in the town of the same name. Like the Choctaw Nation forced to march from the Deep South to eastern Oklahoma, they didn’t leave their beautiful mill home voluntarily. The property, which I used to stop by at odd hours just to enjoy fresh air, waterfowl and the rushing waters, was put up for sale and eventually purchased by Miss Porter’s School for a purpose not yet determined.
Unlike the unpardonable displacement of the Choctaw (and numerous other Indian tribes after them), shed no tears for the owners of the Grist Mill. They have landed on their feet, successfully negotiating for the Avon space formerly occupied by Carmen Anthony Fishhouse. The new accommodations are attractive and catch the eye of passing traffic, trading in the antique and the bucolic for modernity and curb appeal. But lingering sadness is demonstrated by comments of longtime staff and a foyer that pays tribute to the original location through a collection of artwork depicting the mill.
The Grist Mill’s second floor digs, reached by either elevator or external staircase, overlook the treetops and parking lot of the Shoppes at River Park Plaza on Route 44. Sage-colored booths run down the sides of the long dining room, freestanding tables down the middle. To the right of the dining room is a large lounge, and to its right a private dining room. Tables are simply but nicely appointed with white linen tablecloths and napkins, faux red roses in white bud vases, and small glass kerosene candles.
The staff is friendly, well-trained and alert, although water refills occasionally lag and our checks are slow in coming. Crusty bread is volunteered with both butter and extra virgin olive oil. The wine ritual is properly carried out. The well-considered wine list ($24-$145) includes 13 offerings by the glass ($6-$12). A 2010 Beringer “Founder’s Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa, California ($24) is better than we expect, a 2010 Liberty School Cab, Paso Robles, California ($32) simply terrific.
The Grist Mill’s food is quite good.
Cutting-edge creativity may be in short supply, but competence and consistency are abundant. Ingredients appear wellsourced and well-handled, as with big briny Blue Point oysters ($2.75 apiece) so invigorating on their own that we ignore all of the accoutrements. On special, an arugula salad ($11) is beautifully balanced with shoehorn-like endive leaves, fennel shavings, orange segments, pomegranate seeds and spiced walnuts in a citrusy dressing.
Also on special, a butternut squash bisque with lobster ($8.75) may not showcase its most expensive ingredient, but the combination is surprisingly successful nonetheless. Similarly, that premium ingredient may lose its star status in a lobster and mushroom fricassee ($13) but seems content to be part of a glorious ensemble as it’s flambéed with brandy and served in a demi-glace over polenta.
It’s nice to find escargots ($10) on the menu, and they’re not lost sautéed with spinach and tomato and served with garlic crostini but actually retain a little of their distinctive flavor. Traditional fried calamari is offered, but we opt for the somewhat harder-to-find Rhode Island calamari ($12) tossed with chopped cherry peppers in a spicy marinara sauce. Timing is everything with this dish, and the already-sauced calamari hits the table hot enough so that the crunch is there right to the very last ring.
We applaud the fact that the Grist Mill encourages half orders of its pastas, theoretically expanding the potential starter choices greatly. But the strange thing is that, with no ravioli, agnolotti, or gnocchi, few of the pastas are actually tempting as appetizers. A fettuccine carbonara ($10/$19.75) is nicely done however, the noodles al dente, the sauce a voluptuous combination of egg, butter, Parmesan, pancetta and black pepper.