The New Mystic: These Visionaries are Driven by a Passion for Food and their Community
In our modern and super fast-paced world, we spend little time thinking about the makers and suppliers behind our food. Essentially, the heart, the hard work and the passion are brushed aside to make way for our culture of convenience.
However, during a recent visit to Mystic, Connecticut, I was awakened to a culinary revolution that focuses on seasonality and serving food that travels short distances such as noted on the Oyster Club's menu: "We believe that the finest food travels from the shortest distance from the farm and to sea to table." Spearheaded by Dan Meiser and chef James Wayman, this simple but powerful mantra not only allows the food they serve to be of the highest quality, but it also tells the deeper stories behind the makers, suppliers, and essentially the people behind the eco system of Mystic.
This is apparent in their local three outposts: Oyster Club, Engine Room, and Grass & Bone,- where they focus on creativity and experimentation, using the freshest possible products. This thoughtful approach to food (and its makers, suppliers and farmers) has created a strong, hyper-local eco-system that is shaping a new (and very exciting!) culinary revolution in Mystic.
During my recent visit, I had the chance to spend time with both Meiser and Wayman to learn more about their ethos, while also enjoying some items from the current menus at all three restaurants.
Starting out at Oyster Club, I was instantly drawn into its warm and cozy space, inspired by the coast, with their rustic-chic interiors and lively bar.
Opened in 2011, the restaurant is renowned for its constantly changing menu every night, where they switch out/alter dishes based on Wayman's food sources and his vision for that particular evening.
This "menu in reverse" was incredible for me to ponder on so many fronts. As a former waitress in college, I was amazed that the waitstaff, managers, sous chefs and so on all had to learn a new menu and translate it with ease to their guests every single night. This means not only memorizing a list of items on a menu, but understanding the stories behind the ingredients, the farmers, the producers, the makers and every detail in order to convey these messages to guests at the restaurant. This leaves no room for boredom and creativity is paramount, with a philosophy that focuses on the product first and dedication to the quality and freshness of what they put out there.
The daily, ever-changing menu is also reflected in the relationships Wayman and the team have forged with local farmers, fishermen, and artisans, as they are passionate about telling the story about the maker/provider behind the food that they offer in their outposts. They also focus on using the entire animal in their process to ensure the highest quality of preparation of cooking without the mass appeal of one part which does not guarantee freshness over time.
While the quality of the food was paramount, it was difficult to pin point exactly what the cooking style is. Words like eccentric and farm-to-sea were shuffled around, but they didn't paint the whole picture of just how dynamic and thoughtful the menu was, especially since some items included styles and flavors from other cultures, as well as seasonal ingredients and some of Wayman's experiments such as homemade salts, fermented products, and foraged mushrooms, to name a few you might sample on a given night. There is constant experimentation, testing and trying new things, which is exciting for guests, as you might be trying new flavors and food combinations that you've never had before.
Take their flint corn dish that I enjoyed. My waiter told me that this was not ordinary corn, but was actually sourced from nearby Davis Family Farm, which dates back to 1654. This was a starchier version than our traditional corn, and was beautifully paired with toast, miso mayo, and Finback cheese from local cheesemaker Mystic Cheese.
While the menu does change, there are some staples, such as their Rhode Island style broth-based chowder and the delicious homemade tagliatelle featuring prime beef, pork, tomatoes, white wine, vegetables and Parmigiano Reggiano.
While the food was amazing, it was also incredible to learn more about Meiser and Wayman's passion for the local community and how they support local farmers butchers, cheesemakers, etc to cycle the economic development to back into the community, and, thus to continue to support and fund businesses that are right in their backyard.
My culinary journey also included a visit to Grass & Bone, a neighborhood butcher shop and cozy restaurant offering "good to the bone" meats, seasonal salads, sandwiches, sides and more.They also carry an impressive range of dry-aged meats that they use for local events and/or their restaurants, as well as a diverse butcher case where consumers can find meats from local farmers, including several organic options.
While enjoying their homemade granola (they also have classic breakfast sandwiches, omelets, and breakfast burritos, to name a few options), we spoke about everything from fermentation to dry-aging and their growth. I was especially curious to know whether another restaurant was on the horizon, given the success of all of their outposts. "We don't want to open a restaurant just to open another restaurant," Meiser said. "We are driven by focusing on product first," he added. Driven beyond the demand to mass produce their model, this really struck me, as they demonstrated their character and genuine love of what they are doing.
After enjoying the sights of Mystic, I ventured to the Engine Room for lunch. Featuring American comfort food with an ever-changing menu, I enjoyed one of their classic burgers and a salad. This hyper-local menu focuses on dry-aged beef and also boasts having the area's largest bourbon selection as well as 16 craft beers on tap. Located in the resorted Lathrop Marnie Engine building, it's the perfect spot for a hearty burger, paired with a beer.
To complete the experience, I took a trip to Stone Acres Farm, a beautiful 63-acre working farm that dates back to 1765 and has been operational since before the Revolutionary War. During the tour, I learned more about their CSA program, as well as some of their local farm dinners, guest chefs visits, on going workshops, weddings and private events.
This stunning landscape also includes boxwood bushes that frame the garden, as well as a gazebo, fish pond, and roses that were first placed there in the 1800s. Additionally, some products from the farm source Grass & Bone and the Oyster Club, as well as other local restaurants.
They even host outdoor dinners on an oven that was made on site, called the "Fire Beast," where Wayman cooks and prepares the food in its open, airy landscape.
With a full heart (and happy belly), I left Mystic with a better understanding of how Meiser and Wayman's vision, dedication, passion, and craftsmanship have elevated the experience for their guests as well as those in the community who will surely follow their lead.
Visit Oyster Club at 13 Water Street, Mystic, CT
Visit Engine Room at 14 Holmes Street, Mystic, CT
Visit Grass & Bone at 24 East Main Street, Mystic, CT