Eclecticism by the Sea
By Stephanie Lyness
Published: January 13, 2012
Sampling the lobster roll at Oyster Club in Mystic is practically unavoidable. In one guise or another, it is one of the few constants on a menu that changes daily. Though not a big fan of this shore-side standby, I was converted at first bite. The version on the day I visited (a Saturday in December) combined fat chunks of succulent lobster meat with a delicate mix of truffle oil, parsley and parsley oil. The lobster was stuffed into a house-made potato roll spread with apple butter and topped with crisp-fried shallots; accompanying it were thick-cut fries sprinkled with a flavorsome mix of celery salt, paprika, homemade garlic powder and cayenne that made it easy to forgive the less-than-crisp fries.
Oyster Club is a new addition to the deluge of restaurants featuring products from farmers, fishermen and artisans in the area. Given the restaurant’s team, this is no surprise. The executive chef, James Wayman, was previously executive chef at River Tavern in Chester for seven years; there, with the chef and owner, Jonathan Rapp, he helped make supporting local farms chic, fun and sublimely tasty. Daniel Meiser, general manager and co-owner of Oyster Club with Jason Steadman, helped open Hartford’s farm-to-table Firebox Restaurant in 2007 and, more recently, Ocean Housein Watch Hill, R.I.
In a recent phone conversation, Mr. Meiser said that in addition to the farm-to-table philosophy practiced at River Tavern and Firebox, Oyster Club’s coastal location allows him and Mr. Wayman to buy seafood directly from fishermen and producers, sometimes off the boats. This means very fresh seafood, sometimes from ocean to frying pan in less than 24 hours, a significant advantage given the product’s perishable nature.
Mr. Wayman’s cuisine is an adventuresome mix of cultures, borrowing in some measure from the ethnic groups that settled on the New England coastline. His appetizers, like those at River Tavern, were exceptional — exhilarating and creative without being fussy. The clam chowder I had at dinner, for example, was a delicate reworking of the New England classic. A world away from thick, stick-to-the-ribs chowders, this version was based on the abundant broth from Quahog clams, steamed open in white wine with aromatics. Finished with only a wisp of cream, the chowder was gorgeously light-textured, rich in flavor, and chunky with clams, potatoes, bacon and celery.
True to its name, the restaurant always offers a raw bar. Oysters from Fishers Island and Rhode Island came to the table on the half shell, expertly opened, and perfectly fresh. Though more expensive than their Rhode Island brethren, the crisp and briny Fishers Islands were well worth the extra dollar.
Another inspired starter paired smooth, deep-flavored venison pâté with duck rillettes; duck egg salad and delicious homemade pickles rounded out the plate. A sautéed foie gras appetizer was equally well prepared, but a lively Thai fish salad, which appears now and again on the menu, was even better. Reminiscent of the best of River Tavern, cubes of deep-fried blackfish, swordfish and monkfish contributed contrasting flavor and texture; the salad was finished with an addictive mix of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, cilantro, fresh red chilies, onions and peanuts.
Entrees at Oyster Club were solidly executed, but often less brilliant than the appetizers. And meats were occasionally overcooked. A thick-cut slab of calf’s liver — served with buttery mashed potatoes, sautéed onions in a cream sauce and a garnish of deep-fried onions — was cooked to medium, rather than the requested rare. An otherwise excellent hamburger at lunch was also cooked past the requested medium-rare. A generous portion of tuna, however, was expertly cooked — served rare on a bed of nicely cooked fresh pasta, minimally sauced with tomato and anchovy — but tuna and pasta seemed curiously unrelated.
In a mild-tasting vegetarian stew of deep-fried tofu with black chickpeas and almond milk, tofu cubes were light as clouds, with a delicate, crisp skin, but the dish lacked pizzazz. That night’s swordfish, however, was stunning: served with jasmine rice and cooked greens, it was moistened with a savory, Hunan-style broth redolent of star anise, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, black pepper and soy sauce.
For dessert, I preferred the apple turnovers, with nicely flavored fillings wrapped in crisp pastries, to the graham-cracker-crusted Key lime pie, which was more creamy than tart. But my favorite was the smooth mocha crème brûlée. Made with Mexican chocolate, it melted in the mouth, a pinch of chili providing a delightful balance of sweet and bitter.
RATING: WORTH IT
THE SPACE Contemporary take on a spare New England sensibility: 48-seat dining area with large windows and unfinished wood walls hung with posters and three original Edward Curtis photographs. Terrace open May to October, weather permitting. Wheelchair access.
THE CROWD Casually dressed, eclectic mix, from the neighborhood and beyond. Children would be fine here. Lively bar crowd. Servers are attentive and knowledgeable about both food and wines.
THE BAR Full service; brief international wine list with good variation in price. Wine by the glass, $7.50 to $14. Full menu available during restaurant hours; raw bar and late-night menu available after that (seating for 16 at bar and high-top tables). Happy hour: Monday, and Wednesday through Friday, 4 to 6 p.m., with $1 Noank oysters and drink specials.
THE BILL From a menu that changes daily: appetizers are generally $10 to $14, entrees $18 to $36. All credit cards accepted.
WHAT WE LIKED Green salad with apples, clam chowder, venison pâté and duck rillettes, Thai fish salad, sautéed foie gras, raw bar oysters and clams, lobster roll, hamburger, swordfish with jasmine rice and greens, calf’s liver, mocha crème brûlée, apple turnovers.
RATINGS Don’t Miss, Worth It, O.K., Don’t Bother.