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Thursday, July 1, 2004 11:51 am

A revival — and a reunion

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Denny Joslin, co-owner of Nantucket Grill

The sign on the door makes it clear: The recently opened Nantucket Grill is not associated with the New England Lobster House, which until February occupied the space on MacArthur Boulevard. But if the sign weren't there, you might not perceive much of a difference between the old and the new.

The interior still features gray-carpeted walls decorated with brass dolphins, harpoons, and other nautical knickknacks. The menu still offers such standard fare as catfish, fried oysters, and crab legs.

A few changes have been made, though -- some for the better, some not. There are more parking spaces now, as well as a waiting area lined with red couches, which is nice because the restaurant no longer takes reservations. A revamped menu offers more than just fried seafood, featuring such healthy options as broiled and grilled fish. The exterior sports a fresh coat of white paint with red and blue accents, plus a sign emblazoned with a zippy bonefish outlined in vibrant shades of purple, yellow, red, and blue. Regular customers will notice that the early-bird specials and "all you can eat" fried-shrimp nights are history, which is unfortunate because the shrimp was one of the best items on the old menu -- although Nantucket Grill's version is quite good as well.

Nantucket Grill is owned by Denny and Carole Joslin and Dan Whitmore. They're also the owners of the Chesapeake Seafood House. Joslin has owned several other area restaurants, including Denny's Kountry Kitchen and the Mason Jar, and opened the original New England Lobster House.

Joslin's association with the Springfield restaurant scene began more than 30 years ago when he was working for a chain restaurant in Florida called the New England Oyster House. He moved here to operate the New Salem Lodge near Petersburg. That venture led to several others, including the New England Lobster House. He and wife Carole retired to Florida but recently returned to Springfield to open the Nantucket Grill after the New England Lobster House closed.

The Joslins can usually be seen walking around the restaurant and chatting with customers.

"This has always been my wife's love and my love," he says of the seafood restaurant. "It's not so big, so I can go to every table when customers get their food and then again, after they have their food, to see if they're pleased. That's what people want. I try to hit every table at least two times," he says.

The menu includes such appetizers as baked French onion soup, oysters Rockefeller, escargots, oysters Degonghe (shucked oysters topped with butter, garlic, bread crumbs, and cheese -- usually spelled "De Jonghe"), and shrimp cocktail. We chose the crabmeat-stuffed mushrooms, large mushroom caps filled with crabmeat and topped with mozzarella cheese. Although satisfactory, they had a slightly bitter taste and could have been served warmer.

The entrées include a handful of fish options, which can be ordered fried, blackened, broiled, or baked. "We do recommend that most of our fish be broiled, because it's better for you," Joslin says.

Seafood offerings include scallops, oysters, shrimp, clams, crab legs, and lobster tail.

We tried the raspberry salmon, a large fillet marinated for 24 hours in raspberry sauce and then grilled. It was superb. The sweet, tart raspberry flavor gave the tender fillet, which was incredibly moist, an interesting flavor. I can't say the same of the fried oysters, however. The lackluster shellfish were small and overpowered by their heavy breading.

We also tried the Nantucket Shrimp Trio, which consisted of a hearty helping of crabmeat-stuffed shrimp, fried shrimp, and a small dish of basted shrimp. The basted shrimp, bathed in garlic butter, were tasteless and limp, and the bland crabmeat stuffing needed some spice to add some interest. The fried shrimp, however, were divine. The light breading, which is the restaurant's own recipe, just barely coated the large shrimp. Dipped in cocktail sauce and squirted with lemon juice, these shrimp were by far the best of the group. The fried catfish was tasty, too: flaky on the inside, golden and crispy on the outside.

Stir-fry entrées are available. Broccoli, mushroom, carrots, red and green peppers, water chestnuts, pea pods, and pearl onions, sautéed in sesame oil, teriyaki glaze, and garlic, are served on a bed of rice pilaf. This vegetable entrée can also be made with chicken or shrimp.

Steak options include filet mignon, ribeye, New York strip, and top sirloin. You can also order pasta, such as fettuccine made with shrimp, chicken, or seafood (a 5-oz. lobster tail and five large Gulf shrimp served on a bed of fettuccine, topped with Alfredo sauce.)

Entrées are served with a garden salad, miniloaf of bread with honey butter, and choice of au gratin potatoes, baked potato, French fries, rice pilaf, or vegetable. My husband ordered the au gratin potatoes with the salmon. The creamy, rich dish was cheesy and flavorful.

The garden salad is as basic as a salad can get: iceberg lettuce with a scattering of shredded carrot. Even though this kind of salad is commonly served in casual restaurants, the inclusion of a few tomato chunks, cucumber, or croutons to make the first course a little more flavorful wouldn't hurt. The bread with honey butter is a sweet addition to the salad.

In addition to wine, beer, and soft drinks, frozen drinks such as the Blue Whale Tail and the Nantucket Chiller (vodka with pineapple and orange juices) are available, reasonably priced at $3.95.

The atmosphere may be casual, but the service is friendly and prompt.

Joslin says he has no regrets about leaving Florida and returning to Springfield to reopen the restaurant he operated many years ago. "I owe them [the customers] what I'm doing. I was enjoying my retirement, but I didn't feel anyone could take it and do what Denny Joslin could do," he says. "It's been like a family reunion since I got here."

Nantucket Grill is located at 1710 S. MacArthur Blvd., 523-1710. Hours: 4-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 3-9 p.m. Sun.

What's cooking?

Wondering what to do with your fresh produce this season? The Agritourism Committee for Central Illinois publishes a cookbook, Home Grown in Central Illinois, offering recipes from farmers and agricultural associations and businesses. The book focuses on ways to use the bounty of central Illinois, from fruit and vegetables to ostrich stroganoff and rabbit stew. Several recipes from Springfield-area businesses and state associations -- among them rhubarb pie from Jefferies Orchard, soy chocolate-drop cookies from Spectrum Foods, honey-pecan pie from the Illinois State Beekeepers Association in Pleasant Plains -- are featured.

At just $3, the 80-page cookbook is a steal. In addition to recipes, it contains suggestions for decreasing the amount of fat in your diet, plus other information.

To buy a cookbook (or for more information), get in touch with the Central Illinois Tourism Development Office, 700 E. Adams St., Springfield, IL 62701; 525-7980 or email citc@eosinic.com.

Here's a sample recipe from Crist Orchards in Atwood:

Summer's Best Raspberry Muffins  

Ingredients:
2 cups flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
4 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup shortening
1 egg, well beaten
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup fresh raspberries

Directions:
Mix flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt. Cut in shortening. Make a well in the center of the mixture, then add egg and milk; stir until combined. Fold in raspberries. Fill greased muffin tin two-thirds full. Bake at 400° for 25 minutes. Makes about 12 muffins.

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