Horace & Sylvia's Publick House
100 Deer Park Ave. Babylon, NY 631-587-5081
This smart bar-restaurant serves hot biscuits before such dishes as wild mushroom meat loaf and potpie du jour. Finish with a fragrant house-made apple crisp. In a town profuse with pubs, Horace & Sylvia's Publick House in Babylon appears to be just another pretty watering hole. I might have seen it as nothing more than that, had not two readers called to speak of the place's real allure: its food. Who would have thought this would be the setting for a nuanced special of fresh soft shell crabs in an aromatic lobster coconut broth? Or, at a subsequent meal, a first-rate hamburger with thin, crisp fries?
Every downtown on Long Island needs a version of Horace & Sylvia's Publick House. Maybe the lure of this likable, local hangout is the genial service, or the relaxed style on a weekday night. Could be the Saturday buzz and the live music. Definitely: 18 brews on tap. Order carefully, and you'll have a good meal at fair prices, too. There's a pretty high comfort level, whether you're a regular or a first-timer, seated at the bar and checking the TVs or in the dining room enjoying the spacious art of guys digging for shellfish. That should give you a cue. Executive chef Brian Fugit sends out a satisfying opener of baked littleneck clams three ways -- oreganata, casino and stuffed. He also prepares a full-bodied, coral-hued lobster bisque with floating chunks of tender meat. Stay seaside with his fish tacos, made with cornmeal-dusted grouper, pico de gallo relish and chipotle sour cream to go with the lettuce into a grilled corn tortilla. Take an Asian side trip with seared tuna crisps, thinly sliced ahi atop a crunchy wonton, spiked with a wasabi mayo-and-soy reduction. Continue with the big fish via refreshing Vietnamese tuna rolls, accented with cilantro and matched with cucumber and carrot before they're wrapped in rice paper. You can, however, skip the mushy broiled crabcakes. Not much going for the tricolor nachos, either, with minimal cheese; or the house's bland, unevenly seasoned chili. Onion soup gratinée needs more depth and less salt. And avoid the pumpkin mezzaluna, too-sweet pasta packet in almond-and-Amaretto brown butter that accentuates the negative. Instead, sample a salad. The endive, beet and spinach number gets a boost from crumbled Gorgonzola cheese and slices of apple, if not from roasted candied pecans. The update on Waldorf salad adds dried cherries and trims celery from the vintage recipe. Heading the main dishes: a pork spin on osso buco that's tender enough to minimize the impact of pasty, bacon-shallot risotto; and slices of boneless, braised short rib with carrots and sweet potatoes that outdo their stout demiglacé. Chicken-and-shrimp jambalaya packs plenty of heat, along with chorizo sausage, tomato broth and basmati rice, to experiment with the Creole classic. Southern fried chicken is on the dry side, despite the gravy. But those biscuits are grand. Of course, you'll already know that since they star in the bread basket, too. Flourless chocolate cake is the best sweet. But, by now, every downtown must have at least one.