Road Trip: Old Lyme & Chester for Great Food and Fun

Elizabeth Keyser

In these cold cabin-fever days of winter, a road trip to a country inn casts an alluring spell.  Dreaming of a cozy dinner in front of a flickering fireplace, we hit the road to check out The Bee & Thistle Inn and Spa in Old Lyme. (100 Lyme Street, Old Lyme, CT)

The Bee & Thistle has been an inn since 1930, but Linnea and David Rufo have breathed new life into the historic building since buying it 4 years ago. Linnea is a multi-talented, energetic and attractive woman with 20 years of experience in the hospitality business as a chef (she worked at Jean Georges Vongerichten’s Mercer Kitchen), innkeeper (The Inn at Stockbridge in Massachusetts) and award-winning events planner (too numerous to list).

She’s the Bee & Thistle’s executive chef and hostess, and has created a cozy ambience filled with good food, art and music. It’s not surprising to learn that Linnea was a theatre major – the Bee & Thistle is a stage set for an audience-pleasing performance. There’s a good vibe at the Bee & Thistle. Linnea and Dave are fun people who seem to have found a balance between the hard work of running an inn, and enjoying themselves while doing it.

We sat down to dinner at the inn’s Chestnut Grille in the main dining room in front of the fireplace.  The restaurant is open Wednesday through Saturday. There’s the regular menu, with alluring dishes like pan-roasted salmon with coconut curry broth, sautéed greens and roasted celery root ($23. Yes, the prices are quiet reasonable). 

There’s also a prix fixe menu offering three courses for $28. The Bantam Menu offers half-plate portions. On Thursday nights there’s a wine flight, three tastes with a goat cheese cake with herb salad for $15. The goat cheese cake is a stand out, with a crunchy golden crust, its tangy richness cut by roasted olives and herbs.

Start with the baked oysters. I don’t usual go for baked (I prefer them raw), but these were delicious. Beneath a thin panko crust, the oysters were tender and juicy, flavored with prosciutto and Vidalia onions. 

Deciding what to order isn’t easy, but I chose right with the pan-seared diver scallops with grilled shrimp. Chef Kristopher Rowe caramelized the scallops, leaving them crusty on the outside, moist within. Shrimp, so easily turned to cotton on a grill, bore grill marks, but were tender. I also enjoyed tastes of the star-anise braised short ribs, creamy mac n’ cheese, and pistachio-crusted lamb chops.

Desserts were excellent.  The chestnut-chocolate cake is pure, creamy bliss. The apple fritters with butterscotch sauce are the signature dessert with good reason, and the pear-ginger crisp comes with ice cream from Old Lyme Ice Cream Shoppe, right down the street. The lemon-custard sponge cake is amazingly light. It’s Linnea’s mom’s recipe. As it bakes, it creates its own layer of custard.

I was there on a Thursday, so I didn’t get to experience the live music. Friday and Saturday nights, Kip Sturgeon leads his band from 7 to 9 p.m.  Sometimes Linnea will sing a song or two.  Often, it turns into a group sing-along, with guests lending their voices to songs from the Great American Songbook and the Beatles.

As appealing as The Bee & Thistle is in winter (with reduced rates on the inn’s 9 rooms), I can only imagine how beautiful it is in warmer weather, nestled on 5 acres bordering the Lieutenant River. But in the meantime, if dinner at the Bee & Thistle Inn and Spa is a show, I give it a standing-0.

What else is there to do in Old Lyme (besides massages and facials at the Inn’s spa)? There are art galleries and museums. I spent time drooling over the gorgeous custom and antique jewelry in E F Watermelon Gallery (24 Lyme St.).

We headed over to Sankow's Beaver Brook Farm (139 Beaver Brook Road Old Lyme, (860) 434-2843). This is a real working farm – the largest sheep farm in Connecticut. The owners welcome visitors into their step-back-in-time shop where they sell cheese and lamb. We sampled several raw sheep’s and cow’s milk cheeses and chatted with a local who came by to pick up a supply of raw milk. We bought a wedge of rich, creamy Pleasant Cow cheese, and I got two lamb chops and two shanks. In a separate shop, they sell wool sweaters and blankets made from the farm’s sheep’s wool.

What else to do?  Lunch. We drove back over the river to the little village of Chester. I wrote about River Tavern’s chef James Wayman’s charcuterie in the November issue of Connecticut Magazine, but long lead times being what they are, I hadn’t tasted it, since James only makes it in the fall. (The other chefs I profiled, Bernard Bouissou of Bernard’s in Ridgefield and Tyler Anderson of The Copper Beech Inn and Brasserie Pip in Ivoryton, make their charcuterie year round.)

James sent out the day’s charcuterie platter, and from the first bite I was in heaven. Ciccioli are the Italian version of pork rillettes. Chef James cuts scraps of pork, fatty meat and chunks of fat and cooks them down. The meat cooks in its own fat. The mashed, shredded pork is suspended in flavored fat, flecked with thyme, and served on a garlic-rubbed crouton.

Thin slices of prosciutto, from a ham that had hung for three months, were moist, fatty, meltingly tender. The head cheese was flavored with lemon zest, and I loved the slightly chewy texture. Pork liver mousse was smooth and rich.  Wine is essential with rich food like this.

My friend indulged in the lobster and spinach crepe, loaded with lobster in a light cream sauce.  I enjoyed the smooth fennel-spinach soup.  With the sun streaming through the windows and the casual chic crowd dining beneath the colorful prints by the late Sol LeWitt, all seemed right with the world.