Exploring Southeast Connecticut’s Culinary Scene

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If there’s one recognized vacationer vacation spot within the state of Connecticut, it’s the coastal city of Mystic. Whether or not for the seaport museum commemorating its maritime heritage, the aquarium’s sea lions and beluga whales, or the charming downtown, dense with boutiques and anchored by a bascule bridge that’s celebrating its one centesimal anniversary, about 1.5 million out-of-towners go to yearly, in keeping with the Larger Mystic Chamber of Commerce.

However today, individuals are descending in town of not fairly 5,000 folks for a extra particular purpose: meals. In actual fact, there’s an entire stretch of southeastern Connecticut that’s having a culinary resurgence.

The world has lengthy been related to weathered shacks serving clam strips and lobster rolls. At this time you’re as prone to discover barbecue monkfish cheeks and empanadas filled with native squid, maybe served with a hibiscus margarita or orange pét-nat. The transformation is profound.

You could possibly say a bakery was the tipping level. In 2016, Adam Younger, who was government pastry chef on the luxurious resort Ocean Home in Watch Hill, R. I., opened his French-inspired bakery, Sift Bake Shop, in Mystic. It drew the eye of a neighborhood crowd for its 81-layer croissants and sticky buns submerged in toffee sauce. Then Mr. Younger landed on Meals Community’s “Best Baker in America” in 2017. He gained in 2018. Craziness ensued.

“It used to be like Disney,” Mr. Younger says of the early days. “You would stand in line outside for 30 minutes and then get through the door, and there would be another line inside.”

In time, Mr. Younger and his group reimagined the area and course of throughout the clapboard constructing on Water Avenue to be extra environment friendly. Additionally they added a rooftop bar, and opened Young Buns Doughnuts across the nook on Mystic’s important drag. Although the waits at Sift Bake Store are actually shorter, strains of keen visitors nonetheless arrive day by day.

Not that croissants alone put Mystic on the map. When Dan Meiser and James Wayman opened Oyster Club, a restaurant dedicated to native seafood and merchandise on Water Avenue in 2012, it woke up a want for classy meals. Whereas there have been many restaurant choices then, none had been essentially locations.

“We saw an opportunity to take advantage of the amazing agriculture and fish from the area and create a restaurant that was part of the regional, even national, conversation,” Mr. Meiser explains.

Oyster Membership, which is now a part of Mr. Meiser’s restaurant group, eighty fifth Day Meals Group, continues to serve native greens, meats and fish with a contemporary take. Native monkfish, for instance, is ready with shio koji buttermilk, and polenta made with corn from Davis Farm, which has been working since 1654.

Mystic appears to be the buzziest place in New England today. Spots like the Port of Call, a nautical-themed cocktail lounge that options drag reveals and serves small plates like crispy boqueróns made with native smelt and beef tongue gyros, and Nana’s Bakery & Pizza (co-owned and run by Mr. Wayman, who parted methods with Mr. Meiser final 12 months), which presents made-to-order doughnuts and pizzas from natural, naturally leavened dough, are touchdown on “best of” lists. The Shipwright’s Daughter, which anchors the Whaler’s Inn, a greater than century-old property throughout from the Mystic River that’s been up to date to really feel beach-chic modern, is the latest restaurant incomes accolades for its worldly spin on sustainable seafood, like fluke from Block Island Sound, drizzled in an herby inexperienced romesco sauce and served with roasted summer season squash. It’s helmed by David Standridge who was lured from New York Metropolis by the realm’s magnificence and bounty.

“It’s kind of paradise,” Mr. Standbridge says of the seashores, farms and boating neighborhood. Certain sufficient, look via the window of the restaurant’s elegant, deep blue-saturated eating room, and also you’ll see kayakers and sailboats flitting alongside Mystic River, surrounded by rolling inexperienced hills.

The fanfare isn’t restricted to Mystic.

Outdated Saybrook, about 22 miles to the west, has ebbed and flowed as a well-liked seaside city via the many years. Its busy heart with massive field retailers belies a fringe of breathtaking seashores and verdant waterfront properties.

The Rat Pack used to play on the previous Terra Mar Resort — now the luxe Saybrook Point Resort & Marina — and, after spending her childhood summers within the borough of Fenwick, the actress Katharine Hepburn retired there till her demise in 2003. It’s some extent of satisfaction for the city. The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center — the Kate — is on Foremost Avenue in what was as soon as the City Corridor, that includes a museum and efficiency area that sees a rotation of concert events, theater productions and movies, together with Hepburn classics.

Now it’s the place two notable cooks are increasing.

“Old Saybrook is trending in a direction to become the next Mystic,” says Colt Taylor, the chef and co-owner of the Essex, which opened a clam’s throw from the Kate in December 2021. It’s a slick restaurant that just some years in the past may not have pulled in diners for its five- and seven-course tasting menus the best way it presently does. Mr. Taylor had launched the restaurant in 2017 in Essex, north alongside the Connecticut River. Whereas the taco joint Los Charros that spun out of that location in 2018 is booming, the urge for food for an elevated eating idea by no means took maintain the best way it has now in Outdated Saybrook.

Foie gras “Popsicles” and lobster served on a mattress of beet fusilli could appear stuffy, however Mr. Taylor needs it to be something however. An open kitchen and chef’s counter and sea-themed mural over the expansive bar make for extra enjoyable than formality.

The need to upend expectations can be Joel Gargano’s intention. In late July, the chef and his spouse, Lani, opened Gargano Pasta & Italian Market — additionally on Foremost Avenue — which they describe as Eataly with a New England aptitude. “We need to get out of the stigma of dockside places,” mentioned Mr. Gargano, a Connecticut native, lamenting the shoreline’s status for being competent solely with fried fare.

Along with Italian pastries, salumi and formaggi, and ready and to-order gadgets, there will likely be a pasta lab, the place you’ll be able to see cooks at work and get their suggestions for what sauces marry effectively with which pastas. “We want to bring the products that we like to use,” Ms. Gargano says. “It’s a form of our hospitality, of ‘This is what I have to give to you.’”

The 8,000-square-foot meals corridor additionally has bread made with native‌ grains, similar to purple fife wheat from Skowhegan, Maine, and spelt from Oechsner Farm in New York. This bread, together with dishes like rigatoni integrale, which makes use of a toasted rye from Maine Grains that stands as much as a hearty beef ragù ‌Bolognese, is a favourite on the Garganos’ Grano Arso restaurant in close by Chester.

The polished Italian spot introduced a luster to the small city when it opened in 2017. An artsy enclave of three,800, Chester was settled alongside the Connecticut River in 1692. The city has a historical past of shipbuilding and milling, and is crammed with colourful houses from the seventeenth and 18th centuries, together with oak and maple bushes, some with diameters as huge as golf carts. Now it, too, is seeing a revival bolstered by a robust meals scene.

It was Chester’s Sunday Market that initially drew the Garganos to the city. Distributors peddling produce, baked items, cheeses, fish and meats to the beat of reside music shut down Foremost Avenue for a number of hours each Sunday from mid-June to mid-October. The satisfaction and pleasure of residents is finest exemplified by the chef Jonathan Rapp of River Tavern, one other celebrated Chester restaurant that champions native merchandise. It’s the place he will get his inspiration and components for Dinners on the Farm, a Sunday evening sequence that runs for 10 weeks every summer season and would possibly embrace dishes like cool candy pepper and heirloom tomato soup with panzanella and pesto, and a peach-and-blueberry cake with ice cream from neighboring Honeycone Craft Ice Cream.

“The greatest part is the contagiousness of this,” says Mr. Gargano of the urge for food for extra refined and artistic cooking that he and different cooks are seeing. “Four years ago we didn’t sell nearly as many tasting menus and that’s really exciting.”

Now the query is: Will the identical magic occur elsewhere? Later this month, Sift is opening in Niantic, halfway between Mystic and Outdated Saybrook and the river cities. It will likely be in a brand new constructing, dwelling to different eateries.

Niantic, a village throughout the city of East Lyme, which occurs to be the place I grew up (shout out to the Vikings), has had a sluggish however regular ascent as a vacationer vacation spot. A 1.1-mile boardwalk alongside Niantic Bay was accomplished in 2016, after greater than a decade within the making. Chains on the primary strip, like McDonald’s and Pleasant’s, have been changed by indie institutions like Dev’s on Main, serving Asian- and Latin-infused small plates, and Gumdrops & Lollipops, a basic sweet and selfmade ice cream store. Final 12 months, La Llorona opened, bringing southwestern Mexican flavors and components to an space that hasn’t seen plenty of spice.

“It’s very Mystic, circa 2015,” says Mr. Younger of Niantic’s momentum. “There’s a lot of talented business owners coming to town and starting to make investments.”

The returns, thus far, are very satisfying.

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