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Thursday, Nov. 20, 2003 02:20 pm

Seafood feast

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Cathy Sims Norgaard is working to build New England Lobster House's lunch trade.

The New England Lobster House may be a long way from the East Coast, but it's been proving for more than 20 years that tasty seafood does exist in central Illinois.

Owner Cathy Sims Norgaard says customers, especially out-of-towners, are always surprised at the quality of the restaurant's seafood selections. "I've had people from Maryland, for example, come in and say, 'This is the best seafood I've ever had.' They are really surprised in the Midwest that you can get as much seafood as you can."

The restaurant was opened in 1980 at its current location by former owner Dennis Joslin, who still owns the building. Norgaard managed the restaurant for former owner Don Bassford, before purchasing it in 2002. Her sister, husband, and two of their children also work there. Prior jobs at the Illini Country Club and Hardee's whetted her appetite for the restaurant business, but she worked in the insurance industry for a decade before joining New England Lobster House. "It gets in your blood. I'm here because the crew. The crew and customers became family. We look out for each other," she says.

The atmosphere has stayed the same since Norgaard purchased the restaurant. The blue carpeting still covers the upper half of the dining room walls (to muffle noise). The stocked aquarium filled with colorful fish still delights children. And, of course, there's the tacky, yet endearing seafood restaurant décor consisting of mounted fish and other creatures of the sea covering the walls, plus a ceiling adorned with plastic crabs and lobsters, fishnets, and several vintage lobster traps.

But most importantly, that customer favorite -- fried shrimp -- is still on the menu. The hand-breaded fried shrimp dinner features nine pieces of large butterflied shrimp for $11.95. "Hand-breaded fried shrimp is the best. We still have 'all you can eat' nights. It's not popcorn shrimp. We peel it, cut it and bread it here. There's nothing like it anywhere else," she says. And she's right -- it's the best I've had.

But Norgaard has made several changes to the menu, to accommodate those who don't like seafood. New items include a "light" menu with smaller portions and cheaper prices and a "create your own surf and turf" menu option. And her husband, Paul, who is serving as a bartender, is whipping up new drinks like a key lime margarita, made with ice cream and topped with graham cracker crumbs and whipped cream. She also has expanded the wine list, offering a wide variety of Australian wines. Early bird specials are still available each day before 6 p.m.

"This place is known for its early bird menu. What I did was took that and divided it in two sections. One is still available until 6 p.m. But we're also offering them a smaller portion at a lower cost, all evening long. And people didn't have to rush to get here at 6 p.m. And a lot of my clientele doesn't want to eat as much," she says.

She also began serving lunch and offering hot plate specials like fried clams, prime rib sandwich and barbecue ribs. "It's like a little café. I serve homemade pork roast that is done in my crock pot overnight. Lunch is a little slow, but I think they don't realize they can get in and out in enough time. But they can, especially with these ready-to-eat plate specials."

The lunch menu also offers sandwiches, seafood salad wraps and ponyshoes (called sea horses) which can be ordered with several meat options, including shrimp and fried walleye.

For dinner, appetizers include shrimp cocktail, crabmeat stuffed mushrooms, crab cakes, escargot and oysters. Soups include clam chowder and Seafood Paradise, a rich, flavorful broth filled with chunks of carrots, oysters, calamari, shrimp, mussels and octopus. "It's my recipe. It's unique," she says.

Entrees include pasta and plenty of traditional fish options like orange roughy, catfish, halibut, rainbow trout, tuna, salmon, red snapper and walleye. Shrimp can be ordered fried, steamed, stuffed, or broiled with garlic butter. Lobster, crab, oysters, and scallops as well as steaks, chicken, and ribs round out the menu. Splurge for the twice-baked potato, which is worth every additional calorie. There is also a kid's menu and several vegetarian options.

"I want it to be a very comfortable, friendly atmosphere. It's fine dining you don't have to get dressed up for. You get a great meal just like at a white table cloth kind of restaurant, but you're comfortable and you can be relaxed and wear jeans," she says.

The New England Lobster House is located at 1710 S. MacArthur Blvd., Springfield. 217-544-7171. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; 3 p.m.-10 p.m. Sat. and Sun.

New family card

A new family discount card is now available at New England Lobster House. The $50 card entitles customers to 10 percent off their bill for a year and additional specials. Owner Cathy Sims Norgaard says it demonstrates that her customers are like family.

"We know them by name. I know where they want to sit and who they want to wait on them. They are considered family. A lot of them come in weekly," she says. "It's gone over pretty good. It's a way my regulars can help me out and I can say thank you," she says.

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