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    Monday, July 15, 2024

    Review: Engine Room fires on all cylinders

    A chicken burger with avocado purée, pickled red onion, lettuce and jalapeño mayo at the Engine Room. (Photo by Ann Baldelli)

    As soon as our waitress put down the bowl of razor clams, diners on either side of us at the counter at the chef’s table at the Engine Room unabashedly leaned over to ask what and how they were. 

    My dining partner hadn’t even taken his first bite, but when he did, he exclaimed, “Delicious. Buttery. Garlicky. Meaty.”

    The woman to his left wanted to know where they came from, and like everything at Engine Room and its sister restaurants, we knew the source would be local but asked our waitress to find out exactly. A minute later, she was back to tell us these particular clams were from Cape Cod. Another time when we had ordered them, we were told they were from Watch Hill. 

    On this particular Thursday evening, we settled at the counter at the chef’s table — which offers a pretty good view of the food preparation — because the main dining room at the Engine Room was full. We had never sat there in the past, but we will definitely do so again.

    Like the guy to my right said to our waitress, “Watching you guys work is like being at a musical.”

    Facing the open kitchen, we had a clear view of two prep cooks and a partially obstructed view of three chefs. There was also a constant procession of wait staff, bussers, bartenders, and others back and forth, picking up orders, retrieving dishware, or carrying supplies in and out.

    Right in front of us there was a cook preparing potatoes, and a ragu (or was it a ragout?) and then an interesting salad dressing that included peanut butter, vinegar, siracha, and a lot of other things. We asked a few questions, but the man was working. We did learn the potatoes would be served smashed.

    Engine Room has been around for several years now, one of three downtown Mystic restaurants operated by co-owners Dan Meiser and James Wayman with executive chef Chris Vanasse. We have been before, but this time, we came to critically consider the food.

    Our first foray was lunch on a Monday, and we didn’t realize it was Mystic Restaurant Week until we arrived there. But the deals they offered were all things on the regular menu, just served as a first and second course, and all $18. 

    One of us ordered “The Double Randy,” minus the bun, which is two beef patties with “happy sauce,” bibb lettuce and American cheese. The burgers were flavorful, advertised as three ounces each and hailing from the nearby Beriah Lewis Farm. We skipped the French fries and opted for cole slaw, which, honestly, was not very good. It was limp and flavorless and left us longing for the fries.

    But we had started with a Caesar salad that was loaded with crisp Romaine and was quite tasty and topped with half a toasted English muffin smothered with anchovy paste, which was salty, mildly fishy, and made us wish they had served the second half.

    Our other starter was a deviled egg, which we rated pretty good. It was a little garlicky and topped with crispy shallots, and well, we agreed, a restaurant definitely gets credit for serving deviled eggs. 

    We also got the veggie burger — a wheat berry, mushroom and beet patty with umami sauce and pickled mustard greens — served on an English muffin. The burger’s texture might not appeal to everyone, as it was pasty, or gummy, but the flavor was good and the pickled greens were salty and crunchy, giving the sandwich a nice kick.

    It was a chilly, overcast day, and we ended our meal with piping hot cups of coffee and tea and two chocolate chip cookies ($5). My friend, the coffee drinker, said her brew was delicious and the cookies were yummy, too.

    All in all, our meal was good, but not as good as it was when we returned a few days later for dinner. In addition to the razor clams ($12), we started with two sides — the roasted beet salad with crème fraiche and dill and the roasted Brussels sprouts with olive oil and sea salt. They were $5 each, and we ate every morsel of both of them, and they were hearty servings. We almost could have passed on our entrees afterwards, but of course, we didn’t.

    The beets were tasteful and well cooked, and the crème fraiche and dill the perfect accompaniment. And the Brussels sprouts, well, we would have welcomed a little crumbled bacon on them, but just the same, they were mighty good. 

    Next up, we feasted on the Chinese style smoked ribs with pickled vegetables and jasmine rice ($20), although we opted not to have the rice. The vegetables, spears of celery and carrots, were delightful, sweet and crunchy and somewhat like sophisticated pickles.

    We asked the prep cook behind the counter how they were prepared, and he told us they were charred and brined in a mixture of sugar, water and vinegar. The ribs were a tad overcooked but still flavorful and the meat easily peeled off the bones.

    We also tried the ground chicken burger ($13) that comes with avocado puree, pickled red onion, lettuce, and jalapeno mayonnaise between the burger and the roll. It was a home run. And the hot, crispy fries that came with it were cooked just the way we like them.

    Engine Room is known for its burgers, beer and bourbon, and we didn’t take advantage of the beer or bourbon. Our focus was solely on the food, which is a very good fit with the industrial décor of the place. Founded in 1897, the former Lathrop Engine Company is where the first gasoline-powered boat engine was developed, and Engine Room, especially in warm weather when the patio is open, affords a partial view of the Mystic River.

    This place is seemingly always busy, with a mix of young professionals, hipsters, parents with kids and, when we went for lunch, some seniors taking advantage of restaurant week. 

    There are many restaurants in and around Mystic, but the trio run by Meiser and Wayman — Engine Room, Mystic Oyster Club, and Grass & Bone — have all developed loyal followings and solid reputations.

    We enjoyed our two recent meals at Engine Room, especially our dinner, and would encourage anyone who is curious to sit at the chef’s table and watch the staff maneuvering. Like the guy next to us said, it was like a stage performance, a symphony or a musical. Everyone had a role, and the finished production was delightful.

    Steaming potatoes that will eventually be served as smashed potatoes at the Engine Room. (Photo by Ann Baldelli)

    Engine Room

    14 Holmes St., Mystic 

    (860) 415-8117

    Find them on the Web: engineroomct.com; or on Instagram or Facebook by searching engineroomct

    Atmosphere: Industrial. Located in the restored Lathrop Marine Engine building across Holmes Street from the Mystic River.

    Alcohol: There’s a full-service bar including 16 craft beers on tap and the self-described largest bourbon selection in the area.

    Hours: Sunday brunch 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Sunday dinner 2:30-10 p.m.; Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

    Service: Ample experienced waitstaff

    Prices: Burgers, sandwiches and salads range from about $12 to $16, entrees $20 to $32, and sides about $5 or $6.

    Credit cards: Yes, they take them.

    Handicapped access: There is a big ramp.

    What else: This is comfort food. They take pride in purveying local at Engine Room, whether it’s the beef, seafood, vegetables, or breads. Whatever you eat, you should know that it was likely raised, grown or baked nearby.

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