Live and let dine at The Barley Beach House

For the first time in 14 ½ weeks, I am going out to lunch, gingerly making my way towards the restaurant entrance like some inept villain in an Ellery Queen detective story. If I were wearing a raincoat, the collar would undoubtedly be turned up, but the mercury has just hit 86 degrees and the sky is a cloudless blue. So, I’ve no raincoat and no collar, although, somewhat ironically for someone who is neither about to commit a crime nor investigate one, I am wearing a mask and gloves.

The former Seaside Johnnies in Rye Town Park and Beach overlooking the Long Island Sound changed hands in 2018 and, having installed heating, is now open year round as The Barley Beach House. Still, nothing beats the beach on a summer’s day. Arriving midweek without a reservation, we approach a romper suit-wearing hostess, inscrutable behind a mask of her own, who bids us follow her and, despite two lines of empty tables, shows us to what is undoubtedly the worst table on the outdoor deck.

So far, so mediocre. But, heigh-ho, the sun is shining, the ocean is sparkling and The Foundations are belting out “Build Me Up Buttercup” over the speaker system, so as they say in the classics, what’s really not to like — so far?

Heavy silverware, wrapped in a paper napkin, is already set at each place, although salt and pepper, as I have already gleaned from reading a 10-page directive on Phase-3 restaurant openings, will be available only on demand.

A server appears almost immediately, shorts so short we had to wonder why she had gone to the trouble of putting them on, but full of summer cheer. For me, fish and chips, a generous slab of piping hot, beer-battered cod, brought with hand-cut French fries and a tangy coleslaw. Others in our small group tucked into crisp, fried calamari, golden trinkets piled high in their light summer coat of breadcrumbs, served with a chili-hot marinara for a touch of heat and a redundant slick of hot honey. In another dish, served with isosceles triangles of lightly toasted white bread, the teeny-tiny whiskey peppercorn mussels seemed a little slack and in the doldrums, as if they had had a bad start to the day and needed a hug (metaphoric, of course, for our socially distanced times) and a few words of encouragement to liven them up. The whiskey sauce, meanwhile is a little too light, the whiskey — or what might have been better yet, some white wine or vermouth — not coming through.

There is compensation in a Connecticut lobster roll, a generous amount of lobster meat served open-face, with celery, on buttered brioche. (In the New England version, the lobster is mixed with mayonaisse and cucumber. “Is the mayo homemade, by any chance?” my guest asks the server. “Nah, don’t think so. I think it’s just regular,” comes the disappointing reply.) The meat, however, is sweet and tender, although the precious coral didn’t have quite the glossy texture or mild brine my guest is looking for. She awards it 8/10.

Over on the beach, the lifeguard is making announcements. Parents and guardians are cautioned to watch toddlers to see they don’t toddle off. And beachgoers are reminded that alcohol is not permitted on the beach. The Covid warning comes last but is drowned out by George Harrison who has just started singing “Here Comes the Sun.” Funnily enough, the sun has gone in at this very moment, nobody on the beach appears to be social distancing and an adjoining table, which the guests have just vacated, is being distractedly spritzed and listlessly wiped down by an unmasked server. “It’s all right, it’s all right,” sings Harrison. Well, let’s hope it will be.

Still, location is nearly everything and you can’t take that away from Barley Beach House — which, by the way does a good line in draft beers and beachy cocktails. In addition to the dishes we try, the menu proposes jerk chicken, buttermilk-marinated fried chicken, a panoply of salads with add-ons, chowder, burgers, wraps and pizzas. You could have lunch or dinner at Barley Beach every day for a week and never get bored — at least, not of the food.

Desserts are announced rather than flaunted on a menu. Tiramisu, chocolate mousse cake, ice creams by the scoop. We listen without enthusiasm as the staples are trotted off, disinclined to order. Then a sudden madness takes hold of me and I ask for the chocolate cake, despite knowing if it is going to disappoint — a monumental, calorific error of judgment, surely. And then it arrives — a chocolate slab, surrounded by spritzes of already drooping, shaving-foam-like substance, decorated with two blobs of acidulated green lemon curd. Am I right? The hell I wasn’t. This is the most heavenly chocolate cake I have eaten in a decade, rich and moist, with a velvety mouthfeel and a chocolatiness that other cakes can only dream of.

I ask if this cake is made in-house and after some teeth-pulling (not literal), I learn that it is. The responsible party is Chrissy, the restaurant’s pastry chef. Chrissy, I don’t know you, but I salute you. Take a monumental bow. Remove the pointless decoration and you have a dessert of rare perfection.

Diligently made espressos bring lunch to a close on a high note, even if we do have to wait nearly 20 minutes to pay the bill, since the restaurant’s Wi-Fi is down. Oh well, it makes a pleasant change — it’s usually my credit card which is “down,” so I have some sympathy for the management. One of my guests has the final word. “A good restaurant, which could be great, if it just believed in itself.” There you have it — and do not on any account forget that chocolate cake.

For more, visit thebarleybeachhouse.com

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