By Elise Maclay
Published June 2012
★★½ [Very Good-Superior]
Our meal at Oyster Club begins with a bang, validating a long-held contention of mine: New England oysters are the best in the world—if you eat them in New England. Nine silky beauties lounging in their crinkly shells prove my point. Three are from Noank, practically next door; three from Fishers Island three miles off the coast; and three are from Point Judith, R.I., 45 minutes away. The Noank oysters, are plump, creamy and mild; the Point Judiths have a big, brawny flavor, tasting of salt pond with a hint of iron; the Fishers Island ones have a bright, clean flavor, without a glint of metal and only a hint of brine, finishing with exceptional sweetness. When it comes to crustaceans, local sourcing trumps all, and few pursue it as assiduously as the chef and managing owners at Oyster Club.
They’ve been doing it for years. Chef James Wayman remembers buying fish off the dock when he was the chef at the Water Street Tavern in Stonington Borough, home of the only remaining commercial-fishing fleet in the state. At River Tavern, working with chef owner Jonathan Rapp and locally grown fruits and vegetables, he helped turn the little town of Chester into a foodie destination.
Oyster Club’s manager, co-owner Daniel Meisner, brought the country to the city when he opened Firebox in Hartford and created a year-round farmer’s market alongside. His most recent project, the reopening of Watch Hill’s legendary Ocean House took him back to the shore, which he loves. In Mystic when he’s not presiding at the Oyster Club, he’s on his boat or clamming.
Yes, there are clams on the menu. In fact, the first appetizer listed is quahog chowder. They may be clams to you, but from Mystic to Maine they’re quahogs, and there are only two respectable ways to make chowder with them: New England-style, a creamy bisque, and Rhode Island style, a clear broth. Both styles are on offer at Oyster Club. We order ours New England-style, made with clams and lots and lots of pure, rich, creamery cream, plus a flick of bacon, celery and fresh parsley. Parsimonious Puritans? Not if they ate like this.
Our waitress wants us to know that the chef cooks everything from scratch and the fare changes every day. But my attention is elsewhere, riveted by the seventh appetizer listed on menu. Chicken feet. Years ago, frugal housewives and fancy French chefs put chicken feet to good use, usually in soup, but even then I don’t remember ever seeing the words “chicken feet” on a menu. Today, the fact that chickens have feet is one of those inconvenient truths a euphemistic culture allows a squeamish public to forget.
I look around. Nobody is eating chicken feet. I channel Anthony Bourdain and order them. They arrive in a scraggle, like a pile of branches, shiny with sauce, poking this way and that on the plate. Mostly bone, french-fried to a crunchy crispness with a hint of heat in the crust (cayenne?), they’re fun to gnaw but don’t expect more than a few shreds of meat and cartilage to reward the effort.
A green salad with apples, raisins, feta and yogurt dressing also involves a lot of chewing (a bit too much) because the apples, cut in large chunks, overpower the other ingredients.
On the other hand, East Coast razor clams are a treat to look at and to eat. Large, with shells measuring almost six inches long, filled with tender, sweet meat and carefully steamed, they’re served on a pool of white-wine-and-butter broth exotically scented with smoked paprika.
Appealing as it is, eating like a locavore is not without constraints, but you don’t come to a place like this expecting a mile-long menu and an unlimited supply of everything. Tonight, the kitchen is out of handmade tagliatelle and even lobster rolls. Nimbly we switch to leg of pork and pan-roasted fluke and forget about dessert for the moment. The pork is pepper-rubbed and roasted so carefully that even without a lot of fat it remains tender and juicy. It comes in the bright company of caraway-glazed carrots, cabbage and apples, mustard butter and lemony potato purée. Pork seems almost a new food altogether when it’s treated this way.
With pan-roasted fluke, chef Waymantakes a different tack (three cheers for his boldness). Turning the clock back to Diamond Jim Brady’s day, when no dish could be too rich, he swaddles the delicate fillet of fish in a velvety cloak of outrageously opulent creamed oysters. Luxe can be lovely, we have to say.
Top-quality scallops with a Middle Eastern twist involving sesame seeds, black lentil dal, mint yogurt and mustard greens are too fussy for my taste, but New York strip steak, even with a light molasses-Worcestershire glaze is exactly what a steak lover is likely to have in mind. Just plain good.
By the time we put our dessert order in (procrastinators be warned), Grandma Rose’s Chocolate Linzer Torte is sold out. We are left with orange, maple and cinnamon crème brûlée (delightful), chocolate flourless torte (dry as hardtack) and the latest and greatest grab-and-gobble goodie in the U.S.A., according to the Food Channel: bacon & chocolate chip cookies. Oyster Club makes good ones but you’ll love them or you’ll hate them the way the rest of America does when the chips are down.