Published December 08. 2011 4:00AM Updated February 28. 2012 10:53AM
My conversations with my iPhone generally start out pleasantly enough. "Siri, (I like to think my robotic personal assistant responds better when I address her by name) can you get me information about the Oyster Club in Mystic?"
Her response: "I found three night clubs a little ways from Mystic."
And then the conversation quickly devolves. No, I tell her, as if talking to a small child, and ask again slowly. Same response. Why she would fixate on the word "club" and not "oyster," I cannot say. But even though Mystic's new Water Street restaurant has only been open a few months, anyone who's paying attention knows it bears no similarities to a night club. If the name seems to suggest some elite membership requirements, the feeling will disappear once you're inside.
Because, though the menu is pricey and the service nearly impeccable, everyone is friendly, approachable, and dedicated to the farm- and sea-to-table mission. The concept of locally-sourced foods isn't new but can be surprisingly hard to find in a corner of the state that should be prime real estate for such a venture.
Co-owner Daniel Meiser and executive chef James Wayman have tapped into that, and they clearly know what they're doing. Both boast impressive resumes of great restaurants, including the Trumbull Kitchen and Firebox in Hartford and the new Ocean House in Watch Hill for Meiser, and for Wayman, the River Tavern in Chester.
Their website tells you what fish, meat, vegetables and raw bar items are in season, and the menu itself, which changes daily, lists the farms that supply the food, such as, on our recent visit, Soeltl Farm in Salem and Andrew Madeira lobsters. The menu is happily not extensive, giving diners confidence that they can focus on a limited number of good dishes and remain true to their mission.
Meiser himself greeted everyone who walked through the door on our visit, while the wait staff hurried around, dressed in a great "uniform" of matching blue plaid shirts - a fitting tribute to their philosophy. The dining room is in a single large room, which has sort of a communal feel, with rustic walls of unfinished wood and warm lighting. The bar, in a separate room, is small but a bit more modern, with a white countertop and track lighting. With a reservation (ultimately obtained without Siri's help), we sat right away in the nearly-full dining room and sampled from the drink menu: The Whiskey Smash - Makers Mark, simple syrup and lemon - balanced enough so it wasn't overly sweet, and a Corpse Reviver - gin, lillet, Cointreau, lemon and absinthe - strong but surprisingly refreshing, and a real, especially tasty cherry at the bottom.
Then it was onto the oysters. We tried the East Beach Blonde, Matunuck and Noank ($2 each) varieties, and though it would likely be difficult to differentiate between them, they seemed to get progressively better as we ate them alphabetically. All tasted fresh as we plucked them off the ice, with that lovely slight brine. They came with an apple mignonette and cocktail sauce, but they were perfect alone.
For a first course, we tried the roasted sweet potato soup ($12). It was orange, smooth and creamy, with a chunk of lobster meat in the middle and a drizzle of vanilla. The roasted flavor of the sweet potato was strong at first, and the soup was definitely on the sweet side, but it somehow grew on you as you ate it. The lobster, however, got a bit lost in it all.
They ran out of the corn and bacon fritters that caught our eye, but our waitress, who was ever-attentive and patient with out indecisiveness, helped us pick a nice salad alternative: a plate of wild oyster mushrooms, Serrano ham, a sunny-side up farm egg and arugula ($12), each in its own section of the plate. It made for a bit of an unusual combination, but the mushrooms were cooked to a nicely meaty but chewy state, and the Spanish ham was salty and delicate.
Meals include sandwiches and six main courses, of fish, meat, pasta and a vegetarian tofu option. After carefully eyeing our fellow diners' plates, we settled on the blackfish ($30) - pan-roasted so it was light and not at all dry. It came on a bed of still crunchy Napa cabbage in a spiced ginger-lime butter that was well-balanced with Asian flavors, along with nutty sesame seeds.
Our other choice was a bit difficult to justify - meatloaf for $24. I would not normally recommend this, but the cold-weather comfort food was too tempting to pass up. The meatloaf was flavorful, but the real highlight was the macaroni and cheese on top, made in a rich, mouth-melting parmesan cream with baked, crunchy edges. Even the kale, sautéed simply with garlic, was tender and not at all bitter.
The desserts appeared equally alluring, like a fried golden delicious apple pie, but we could only manage a chocolate chip and bacon cookie ($2). Soft and chewy, it nicely balanced the sweet with salty bits of bacon.
The real "club" of Oyster Club seems to be group of people who grow food, people who cook that food, and people who value the concept. Diners are willing to pay for what they get when a restaurant like Oyster Club is willing to take the time and effort to do it well.