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Inviting menu as big a draw as familiar name

January 6, 2019

It seemed like bigger news than it really was, but there was some genius in that.

When The Lodge at Coyote Creek Golf Club announced it was becoming Rack and Helen’s Social House last year, it created a stir as fans of the New Haven original now had another place to get the food they loved there.

But Wes Anderson and his family had owned it when it was The Lodge and they changed the name to do exactly that : draw attention.

What I found when I returned to the onetime Elks Lodge on Hillegas Road, however, is that although its ownership and atmosphere were the same, there was a pretty significant change to the menu.

The Social House is more like the New Haven original with pub fare and classic American favorites and none of the stodginess one often associates with a country club.

My first taste, and one of the bests, was a staple tavern treat.

The crispy chicken wings were so good that sauce wasn’t necessary. They had a salty, slightly spicy rub with a hint of sweetness that was delicious and, yes, they were very crispy. I could get really social with a bunch of those, a couple of friends and a cold beer or two.

I also loved the smoked salmon dip appetizer. It was beautifully presented on a black, narrow platter with garlic flatbread pieces, and looked like a chunky tuna salad with grape tomatoes and pickled red onions in a caper sauce that had the consistency of mayonnaise.

The salmon was perfect : flaky and moist with just the right amount of smoke : and the onions were not overly vinegar-soaked and still added crunch. It was heavily dressed, which was a good thing as the sauce was scrumptious.

The Social House’s hallmark dish is its ever-changing “adult-rated” cheese toastie. During one visit, it had spaghetti on it and I just couldn’t go there. But when a meatball parmigiana version was offered, I jumped at the chance to try it and was rewarded.

The thick toast was super buttery and crunched with each bite. It was stuffed with tons of mozzarella and Parmesan cheese, red sauce and mushrooms. The sauce added just a little sweetness and the meatballs were sliced and did not dominate the sandwich so it was more about the cheese than anything else.

I also fell in love with the kind of burger I am usually not fond of. The Freshman was a heaping mess of bacon, Gruyère cheese and an oozing cheese sauce, house ketchup and smashed french fries atop a tasty, perfectly cooked patty with pickles affixed to the bun underneath.

The ketchup concerned me, but it worked because it was applied next to the crispy fries. The cheeses tied everything together, it had a nice pretzel bun and was delicious despite being busy and messy.

Given how well the toastie played and how much I enjoyed the wings, I was surprised at how poorly the pizza and the southern fried chicken fared.

My pizza’s toppings : green peppers and olives : were decent and the red sauce was tasty, just like it was on the toastie, but I just struggled to eat it because the crust was a soggy mess.

The fried chicken looked amazing : golden brown and perfectly encapsulated by its crunchy breading : but the breading was the problem. It was way too thick and actually hard to bite through. It had a decent flavor with a little peppery heat, but its thickness kept the skin underneath from properly rendering so it had a thick layer of flabby fat attached to it.

At least the sides with it were wonderful. The bright-green, fresh-tasting garlic green beans were perfectly seasoned and nicely charred in the sauté pan to add an extra layer of flavor. The Asiago mac and cheese was worth a trip to the restaurant on its own.

Served in a piping-hot, mini cast-iron skillet, this creamy, gooey concoction had shell pasta and was topped with crumbled Ritz crackers that added crunch, salt and a little of  the slight sweetness those yummy crackers hold. The Asiago was a little sharp so it stood up to the topping nicely making this side dish simply perfect.

There were a couple of other side/small plate offerings that won me over:

• The small greens : I thought these were collards at first but was told it was the small house salad : had a stellar mix of greens including frisée and dandelion, shredded cheddar and grape tomatoes.

• Like the macaroni, the cheddar smashed potatoes were a yummy endeavor. They, too, came in a little crock blanketed in bubbling brown cheddar. I loved the contrast the smashing created so you had firm slices of potato and more creamy parts like mashed potatoes.

Those potatoes served as the base for the filet medallions, the most formal dish I tried. Two pieces of perfectly cooked beef were crusted heavily with black pepper, but that rub was not overly aggressive. They were topped with sweet caramelized onions and it was all brought together by a tangy tomato jus.

There were, however, also a couple of real failures at the Social House, too.

• The brussels and bacon was the worst thing I put in my mouth there. There was no menu description so I still don’t know what the sour, off-putting, creamy dressing drenching the nicely fried sprouts was. The bacon was also rubbery.

• That same bacon also ruined a dessert I was very eager to try. The salted caramel bacon sundae had amazing little cinnamon waffle croûtons, two generous scoops of creamy vanilla ice cream and a plethora of thinly sliced almonds along with caramel and chocolate sauce. But that rubbery bacon was hard to chew and threw the whole thing off. Had it been completely rendered so it crumbled and crunched, it would have been a star dessert.

The blueberry crisp was a star dessert. It, too, arrived in a crock with a giant scoop of melting vanilla atop its oatmeal topping that was toasted well.

Overall, I was a happy man at Rack and Helen’s Social House. It still looks like a country club restaurant with mundane, modern furnishings and a lack of visual character, but the menu has more than enough character to bring me back.

Restaurant: Rack and Helen’s Social House

Address: 4935 Hillegas Road

Phone: 203-3154

Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 11 a.m. to midnight Thursday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: American

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: wings (11), fried chicken (22), cheese toastie (12), pizza (1.50 to add additional cheese or meat, 75 cents to add a veggie), desserts ($6)

Rating breakdown: Food: ★★ (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.

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