Fine New England Fare: Eating Around Mystic, Connecticut

Fine New England Fare: Eating Around Mystic, Connecticut

         I will go to the mat insisting that the greatest seafood in the world is in the North Atlantic, and in summer, trolling the New England coast, you find it in profusion, on the grill, in chowders, boiled, steamed and served raw. For many that would be enough, but the small town of Mystic has some restaurants that go well beyond that request, easily a match for the Boston’s best.

   

    But first, a word about New England pizzerias: The most heralded are in New Haven, most famously at Pepe’s (though I much prefer Sally’s). There’s good pizza to be found in Boston’s North End and Providence’s Federal Hill. And, yes, there really is a Mystic Pizza in Mystic, made world famous by the movie of the same name. It’s set on Main Street and has become a tourist attraction, though it’s changed hands several times. But the real surprise is a new pizzeria that opened just outside of town a few months ago.

Nana’s Bakery and Pizza (32 Williams Avenue; 860-980-3375) is very new and very, very good. The goods are all made with organic flour and yeasts, and  they even make their own soda flavors (though they need work). We ate outside on a perfect summer’s day, chatting with Aaron Laipply, partner with chef James Wayman, who have passionately committed to going their own way and innovating but well within the respect for tradition. In that regard, the pizzas are as close to any I’ve had in Naples and Sicily, with a crust with a crisp but pliant texture, an interior somewhat like focaccia, and the flavor of the yeast and olive oil throughout. They do a classic white pizza with garlic butter, ricotta and rosemary ($13), tomato and mozzarella ($12), and a New England version with potatoes, bacon, clams, garlic butter and parsley with black pepper ($18), which reminds me of clam chowder. They do a big take-out business, and the breads are dense and wheaty.  I really hope other pizzerias try at least to learn if not pilfer whatever secrets they have to make pies this good, because these pizzas deserve renown throughout New England. (I can sense a small chain coming up and down the coast.)

Grass & Bone (24 East Main Street; 860-245-4814) is also owned by Laipply and Wayman,  and it, too, is mainly a take-out butcher, serving food up till 8 PM. It’s a spanking, smart-looking interior done in white and charcoal gray, with their aging meat locker to one side and tables inside and out. The meats and poultry are locally sourced, and it’s a bellwether spot for first-rate well-aged beef (raised on grass, finished on corn). We took some home and were very impressed with the quality on the grill. The Prime steak goes for $30 a pound. They also sell “seaside” mushrooms.

    Yet despite the great beef, the signature dish here is a rotisserie chicken ($16, half $10), which has the real flavor of an un-enhanced bird, not brined and pumped full of salt. It is generously seasoned on the skin and roasted for about an hour to emerge as a glossy, golden-brown, juicy chicken whose aroma alone will make you swoon.  G&B also serves terrific, well-spiced duck tacos ($4) a sweet potato taco ($3.50) and a mushroom carne asada taco ($3.50), along with a fabulous spicy Cesar salad ($13) that my wife the begged the chef to share. 

The Shipwright’s Daughter (20 East Main Street; 860-536-7605)  is a pretty spot within the Whaler’s Inn, done in nautical blue, hardwoods, roughhewn beams, and bare tables, with a delightful window on Main Street to watch the people come and go. 

      Chef David Standridge is a significant talent in New England, after spending thirteen years in New York, where he worked at Joël Robuchon’s restaurant in The Four Seasons, then at the Maidstone Hotel in East Hampton. Having grown up in the Appalachian mountains, he’s got a keen sense of game and fish in season, obvious in his eclectic menu based on the regional larder. 

     

 Begin with roasted mýa taki mushrooms ($16) or a smoky artichoke pizza ($15), and there are two first-rate pastas impeccably sauced: creamy ricotta gnocchi ($14 or $28 as a main course) cuddled in an herb hazelnut pesto, with summer’s peas and a touch of mint; and bucatini with delicate pioppino mushrooms, a mushroom cream and a dash of Sherry  ($14 or $28). The essential flavors of every ingredient emerge and meld, and the pasta itself is of very fine, chewy character. There are always chilled local oysters or have them roasted with absinthe butter ($17). 

     Halibut came as a thick, hefty rib chop ($41) with morels, asparagus, pickled spruce tips and lemon thyme, all of which add subtle notes of flavor and texture. Every  bit as good was a John Dory à la plancha ($31) with pistachio-studded hummus, New England fiddlehead ferns, snow peas, garlic scapes and a ginger sauce vierge

     For dessert have the moist, flourless chocolate cake or the fussed-up Pavlova. [$10]

      The restaurant also serves a fine breakfast that includes a puffy, crisp buttermilk biscuit with housemade jam and maple butter ($5), and unusual avocado toast with thick multi greens, crushed avocado and chili green sauce ($10), along with a very hearty breakfast taco with creamy scrambled eggs (here the cliché “farm fresh” really means something), chorizo, chili-laced roasted potatoes and complex salsa. A stack of blueberry cornmeal Johnny cakes—a specialty of New England with whipped butter in Rhode Island maple syrup ($13).

      The wine list is not huge but geared well to the type of fare Standridge serves. 

Oyster Club (13 Water Street; 860-415-9266), just off Main Street, is a cannily rustic spot that looks like it might have served whalers a century ago—it opened in 2011—and for that its wooded walls and beams and big glowing  globes cast a shadowy, romantic light from a high ceiling. The service staff could not be more cordial or helpful, and Chef Renee Toupence shows a balance of regional dishes done with her own turn of creativity, saying, “We could not do what we do without the people who farm, fish, ferment, brew and craft in this little corner of Connecticut.” Above the dining room is The Treehouse, with a raw bar, burgers and craft cocktails, soon to offer the same downstairs menu.

Obviously oysters are the big sell here, and you can pick from the best that come from surrounding waters, like Rhode Island East Beach and Ninigret, and Connecticut Mystic and Niantic bay. They also serve oysters Rockefeller (six of them $18). For all the emphasis on local seafood, it’s surprising they serve Prince Edward Island mussels from 5,000 miles away. 

     There’s no whole lobster here—and for reasons I couldn’t’ puzzle out, few anywhere in Mystic restaurants—but the rigatoni with an abundance of lobster chunks  ($19 or $38) is one of the best dishes in town and well worth sharing.  Buttermilk-soaked and ginger-spiced fried fluke ($30) is a fine turn on fish-and-chips, and the dayboat  sea scallops ($32) were plump and very much enhanced by garlic, giant beans, simmered escarole, Calabrian chili and Meyer lemon relish, which sounds like a lot of stuff but it’s all there to buoy the pearly fat scallops with their own briny flavors. 

    If you’ve already had your fill of seafood in  Mystic, by all means order the locally raised short ribs with spring peas and shoots, mint and an ox tail with bordelaise sauce, is, which at  $17 is the best buy in town.

     For dessert you’ll enjoy the Key lime pie and the dark chocolate rye pudding. [$8]

      The wine list is fairly short but the labels are not the usual favorites, so take a chance on the Occhipinti Frappato from Sicily ($85) the La Maison d’Anais Sancerre ($75). Mark-ups are a little above 100% retail.

     If you are looking for a whole lobster on a regular basis, as well as lobster rolls, just head south of Mystic to Noank, a nine-minute drive, where the long-lived and much-loved Abbott’s in the Rough (117 Pearl Street;860-536-7719) has its own dock where the lobstermen pull up daily, so you can be assured of a well-fatted lobster rather than one that’s been wallowing in a fish tank for days on end. You can eat outside in the bucolic Connecticut countryside and feast on crabcakes and chowder, oysters just cracked open, lobsters that weight up to ten pounds and strawberry shortcake for dessert. 

          A lot of people swear by the much newer (opened 2012) Ford’s (15 Riverview Avenue; 860-536-2842) on the water, which has pretty much everything they serve at Abbott’s (the lobster rolls are $24) with the addition of a blackened salmon and spinach salad ($26), clams casino ($15), Cajun peel and eat shrimp ($14), coconut curry mussels ($14), the day’s catch ($23), baked cod ($26) and scallops ($35).

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