By LEEANNE GRIFFIN
Special to the Courant
9:19 AM EST, February 10, 2014
Dan Meiser and James Wayman introduced themselves to Mystic in September 2011 by way of Oyster Club. Though diners quickly flocked to the unique sea-to-table restaurant for raw Noanks on the half shell and native Stonington fluke, others eventually arrived with one item on their mind: the hamburger on a brioche bun.
"We probably have more regulars who come in specifically for the burger than oysters or anything like that, since it's such a damn good burger," said owner Meiser. That strong response to the dish got them thinking about their next concept.
In early fall, Oyster Club owner Meiser and Wayman, his executive chef there, landed a coveted piece of Mystic real estate along Holmes Street – the recently vacated Riverwalk restaurant, a building which had a storied history as the former J.W. Lathrop Marine Engine Company. In homage to the area's roots, the business partners christened their new restaurant Engine Room.
Buoyed in part by the burger's success at the Water Street fine-dining establishment, the two designed a casual eatery based on what they call a "classic, All-American dish." Engine Room's menu focuses on burgers, along with other timeless cuisine, paired with carefully chosen craft beer and bourbon selections.
"The [Oyster Club] burger was sort of a catalyst for this," Wayman explaine. "It helped open our eyes to the potential that this kind of a setup would have."
A "full gut job" of the space restored it to its original industrial feel: Though it had been a fully functioning eatery, Meiser wanted Engine Room to reflect its history. The bustling restaurant with exposed-wood walls and an open kitchen seats 120, more than double the capacity at Oyster Club.
Though "better burger" joints have popped up all over Connecticut in the past several years, Meiser doesn't consider Engine Room another contribution to the craze.
"You can certainly say there's a trend for burger restaurants in America, but there always has been," he said. "…We're doing things that we love to eat, that appeal to a wide range of people. The burger is arguably the most iconic food dish in the world."
At Oyster Club, Meiser and Wayman admit they're borderline obsessive about serving thoughtful local cuisine, using produce, meats and seafood from a network of nearby sources. Engine Room was designed with that philosophy.
Beef burgers are made from dry-aged meat, which starts as a whole 800-pound steer from Beriah Lewis Farm in North Stonington. (Wayman and his staff are experienced butchers, using as much product as possible from a whole animal to incorporate into the menu items.) All of its chicken comes from GourmAvian Farms in Bolton, including the chicken livers that become a rich pate with rosemary, cream and Calvados. Other state producers include Farm to Hearth, which makes Engine Room's bread and brioche burger buns; and Mystic Cheese, which supplies its soft-ripened Melville for an all-Connecticut grilled cheese sandwich.
The burgers ($12 and $13) make up about 80 percent of sales, Meiser said, with six options. The best sellers are beef-based, like the smoked burger with Great Hill Bleu-charred garlic butter and red wine "ketchup"; and the French onion, with stout-caramelized onions and Comte cheese on crisp bread. The Big Stack has two patties with cabbage, sesame slaw, a smoky secret sauce and American cheese, and the Hot Fire makes use of a habanero-spiked smooth cheese sauce.
"It has a cult following, but it'll hurt you," said Meiser.
The smoked pork burger features pork-fat onions, Melville cheese and spicy Dijonaise, and two vegetarian options – a crispy tofu burger with sweet chili aioli and a "falafel burger" with spicy yogurt - are also popular, Meiser said. Each burger comes with house-cut fries, which are crisped in beef fat for extra flavor (though canola oil is also available.)
Appetizers ($10 to $12) include buttermilk-fried Point Judith squid, roasted beets with whipped goat cheese and fried chicken or brisket on a biscuit, with pickled onions and ranch. French onion soup with a long-simmered stock is topped with Comte and croutons. Bar snacks ($3 to $8) include bacon fat caramel popcorn, deviled eggs, aged Gouda, beer-battered onion rings and falafel bites.
Sandwiches, $11 to $15, include a shoutout to Katz's in Manhattan, which has a personal backstory for Meiser. When his now-wife was living in New York near the famous deli, he would stop in and ask for a sandwich made with both pastrami and chopped chicken liver.
"I remember the first time I ever had that, I sat in the corner and had a beer and it literally changed my life. It was incredible," he said. "What we've done is recreated it our way, which does it proud." In Mystic, Engine Room's housemade pastrami joins chicken liver pate on grilled Farm to Hearth rye bread.
The restaurant also offers a few full dinner plates, like GourmAvian fried chicken leg with cheddar grits and bourbon BBQ sauce, and a recent special of 30-day dry-aged ribeye.
To complement the all-American menu, the bar features a meticulously selected collection of bourbons, though several international whiskeys join the mix. Sixteen constantly rotating draft lines are chosen with equal care, with some rare and special offerings and a tap dedicated to Stonington's own Beer'd Brewing Company. "His beers are just that good," Meiser said of owner/brewer Aaren Simoncini.
The partners say they're already seeing a return on their investment. "We've got an hour-plus wait every night at 6 p.m. Reservations sell out way in advance," Meiser said. "People love it. They come in the bar, they're drinking beer, eating deviled eggs, hanging out. It's a lot of fun to be in this space."
For Wayman, who remains in the executive chef role at Oyster Club (his former sous-chef there, Chris Vanasse has assumed the executive position at Engine Room,) the new restaurant is another opportunity for him to strengthen his relationship with local producers.
"It's of integral importance," he said of supporting the local community. "It's the right thing to do… but just forging these relationships with the farmers, fishermen, is really one of my favorite parts of what I do. And it allows me to really control quality. If something's not right, it's not like it comes from some factory farmer in Iowa. I can talk to [them.]"
"We are beyond lucky where we're located geographically," said Meiser. "We have access to some of the best seafood in the world, but the farms and the artisan producers within 15 miles are world-class. They really, truly are. We're just geographically blessed to have these people that close."
Next up: the partners are working on a craft butcher shop in Mystic's former Emporium building, with a projected spring opening.
ENGINE ROOM is at 14 Holmes St. in Mystic. It's open Monday through Thursday, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, noon to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Information: 860-415-8117 and engineroomct.com.
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