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S.S. Dion
Stellar seafood

dining out
(401) 253-2884
520 Thames St., Bristol
Open Mon-Sat, 5-9 p.m.
Major credit cards
Ramp (bathrooms aren't accessible)

Despite more than 411 miles of coastline, Rhode Island has precious few dining spots with a water view. Bristol's S.S. Dion, across from Independence Park and Bristol Harbor, is one of them. This view is seriously impeded, however, if you chose to eat inside. You must arrive early to secure a spot on the deck, surrounded by blue canvas stretched between railings, with a blue and white awning overhead. Though the S.S. in the restaurant's name refers to owners Steve and Susan Dion, the obvious steamship reference is carried out in the nautical canvas-and-rope half-walls of the outdoor space.

On a recent sultry evening, the breezes from Bristol's sheltered cove were quite welcome, as were the impeccable freshness of S.S. Dion's signature seafood and the friendly attentiveness of the staff. Complementary crackers with an herbed and whipped cream cheese spread preceded the usual bread and butter, giving us ample time to contemplate the menu while staving off hunger pains.

Please note: the tap water in Bristol and Warren never recovered from shortages in the '70s and '80s and it still has a metallic taste, even in the sodas from the bar and the ice cubes. So don't stint on the San Pellegrino, if your summer thirst can't be quenched by beer or wine from S.S. Dion's thorough list of American and French whites and reds, German and Italian whites, and Sakonnet Vineyard's "Eye of the Storm" blush wine.

Though S.S.Dion does offer eight classic Italian-style veal and chicken dishes, plus three steak and three vegetarian options, the heart of the menu is seafood, with six seafood pasta dishes, eleven seafood entrees, four grilled items and additional nightly specials. The S.S. could stand for salmon and swordfish, a combo featured in their "mixed grill." And, according to Steve Dion, whose establishment has been in Bristol since '83, swordfish is their top seller.

Not knowing this until after our meal, I nonetheless ordered something quite similar: grilled halibut, a special that night ($19.95) and Bill caved in to his garlic craving with seafood scampi ($21.95). Both meals included salad, with pasta for the scampi, and potatoes and veggies for me.

There's a choice of five seasonings for grilled fish at S.S. Dion, from Bernaise ($2.50 extra) to dill/shallot/mustard, lemon/garlic, horseradish/dill and olive oil/herbs, called "spa." I stayed on the health path with spa, wanting nothing to overpower the taste of the halibut, and was glad that I did. The clean, bright taste of the fish with delicate herbs was exquisite. The mashed red bliss potatoes were a treat, and the whole baby carrots were not overcooked. (I often avoid zucchini, my other option, for fear of sogginess, but a passing dish looked quite nice.)

Bill couldn't stop raving about the capellini under his seafood: al dente as he likes it; much more efficient than flat linguini for soaking up the garlic chunks, chopped herbs, and butter in the sauce. He also enjoyed the generosity of seafood -- a half-dozen littlenecks, three jumbo shrimp, eight New Bedford scallops, and the tail and one claw of a small lobster.

Seafood options also dominate the appetizers, beginning with New England clam chowder and ending in fried calamari -- this is Rhode Island, after all. In between, the standouts are garlic shrimp kabobs, mushroom caps with seafood stuffing, and steamed littlenecks or mussels, in either a white or red sauce. With heaping bowls of the latter all around us, we succumbed to the mussels, in a lemon, butter, and wine sauce, which had plenty of chopped garlic to scoop up from the sauce, peasant-style, with hunks of bread.

Desserts at S.S. Dion are not house-made, primarily because they want to devote their efforts to the main event. However, the selection is simple and good: lemon and watermelon sorbets, cheesecakes, and chocolate mousse cake. We split a wedge of Oreo cheesecake, and it was dense with layers of chocolate and vanilla, not just the cookies, though there was one tucked in.

By dessert time, I'd moved around the table, so the setting sun wasn't glaring at me. But its reflection in the water formed the shimmering background to a modern- day Seurat, as boaters sailed or motored past, and Bristolians walked dogs, RollerBladed, pushed strollers, or bicycled along the final yards of the East Bay Bike Path. It's a peaceful and lush scene upon which to feast your eyes while enjoying the seafood feast.

Issue Date: July 25 - 31, 2002