Mystic's S&P Oyster Company welcomes vegans with new menu

Kale on the half-shell? Line-caught mushrooms?

To the puzzled or unaware, the suggestion that a venerable oyster house has curated new vegan and gluten-free menus might cause some head-scratching or confusion. The truth is, though, that Mystic's S&P Oyster Company — casually referred to by longtime loyal customers as "the seafood place on the river" — has acknowledged and embraced variations in trends and diet and, with the bottom-line aim to please all customers, have reacted with vision and creativity. Now, in addition to the usual much-loved menu, S&P boasts separate vegan and gluten-free menus, each boasting several entrée, salad and appetizer options.

"We're proud to have been known for our seafood and steaks and poultry,'" says Jeremy Socha, who's been general manager at S&P for 25 years. "But we're also so much more than that. Society is changing, and we want our vegan and gluten-free guests to feel completely comfortable and welcome — not like we have to somehow accommodate them. One of the first questions our servers do is ask whether a customer has any special dietary needs. Because, if a guest has to ask, he or she already feels like an afterthought. That's not what we're about."

This culinary expansion has gradually evolved over the past four or five years. As more and more people choose a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle — or deal with gluten-free or other dietary restrictions — the team at S&P has added more options to a menu that's always been reimagined on a regular basis anyway. In addition, they've updated their equipment and cooking methods so vegan dishes don't overlap in preparation with meals from the regular menu.

"This process has been challenging, but it's also been fun," says Edgar Cobena, who's been the executive chef at S&P for 13 years. He is a native of Ecuador who grew up in an environment where fresh fruits and vegetables were everyday staples, often from the family's own garden. "Protein is a big issue for vegans, and we've worked hard to come up with creative and tasty dishes with that in mind. Quinoa, for example, is something I grew up with, and it's delicious and high in protein. There are a lot of similar ways to explore those possibilities."

S&P guests are now presented with the restaurant's regular (and regularly updated) menu featuring seafood, beef and poultry choices. But they're also provided with a separate menu. One side displays the vegan options and the other boasts the gluten-free possibilities. And, no, don't look for the weary, go-to veggie options like pasta primavera that many restaurants have for years included as THE vegetarian option on their menu.

"A lot of places have vegan or gluten-free options," Socha says, "but you'll see them on the menu with an asterisk. Or there's just one dish. Our job is to provide the same types of flavorful and creative choices as our original menu." He adds that, so far as he's aware, no other restaurants in the area are offering vegan and gluten-free menus if that's not their sole purpose.

Regular S&P customers have noticed an increase in the restaurant's vegan and gluten-free selections for a while, and it wasn't by accident.

"Over the last four or five years, we've been adapting what we do consciously," Socha says. "A lot of people have been changing their lifestyles to include a vegan diet, and more are aware of gluten-free situations. This is important to us, and as we regularly modernize or improve our menu, we've been updating the vegan and gluten-free options, too."

The new S&P vegan menu includes three different salads and entrees including a Tri-colored Quinoa, Farro & Vegetable Bowl, vegetable tacos or pasta, Roasted Vegetable Polenta, and Sauteed Vegetables over Canilla Rice. There are also four separate side dishes.

On the gluten-free menu, in addition to numerous salads and appetizers, there are eight entrees, ranging from Dayboat Cod Loin and Bouillabaisse to Pan Seared Sea Scallop, Chicken Vegetable Bowl and pork tenderloin and filet mignon.

"This has been a lot of work, but it's fun work," Cobena smiles. Alluding to the fact that every S&P dish is house-made from locally sourced ingredients, he says, "We have great relationships with local providers. We work with them to see what's available and fresh — and we've spent a lot of time experimenting. It's our responsibility to want to do better for our guests. Our attitude is, 'What can we bring them that's new and different and better?'"

Both Cobena and Socha say they consciously eat more vegetarian fare in their own lives. They do so not just as part of the job or because it's a healthy decision but also because they've seen the increase in vegan or gluten-free consumers within their own social circles as well as restaurant clientele.

"We've taken the time to educate and challenge ourselves," Socha says. "It's been a process, and maybe we don't get it right the first time. But our attitude is that we get it right eventually, and it's great to see that translate here in the restaurant."

"You know, it's not a one or the other situation in terms of menus," Cobena says. "More and more, we'll see someone order a vegan dish because it tastes good and not because the guest is a full-time vegan. That's rewarding to see. And, truthfully, on any given night now, we might see as many as 40 percent of our customers ordering (from the vegan or gluten-free menus). And we even hear friends in the restaurant business comment on what we're doing in a positive way."

Both men agree there's a special moment that happens when the actual, hand-held vegan/gluten-free menu is presented to customers.

"We love the reaction," Socha says. "It's like, 'Wow! Thank you so much.' And that's exactly what we want to happen. We're in the hospitality business and you've chosen to come to our house. Whatever your dietary needs are, we can accomodate you. And it's going to taste great."

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