Exploring Southeast Connecticut’s Culinary Scene

If there’s one known tourist destination in the state of Connecticut, it’s the coastal town of Mystic. Whether 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 is celebrating its 100th anniversary, about 1.5 million out-of-towners visit annually, according to the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce.

But these days, people are descending on the town of not quite 5,000 people for a more specific reason: food. In fact, there’s a whole stretch of southeastern Connecticut that’s having a culinary resurgence.

The area has long been associated with weathered shacks serving clam strips and lobster rolls. Today you’re as likely to find barbecue monkfish cheeks and empanadas stuffed with local squid, perhaps served with a hibiscus margarita or orange pét-nat. The transformation is profound.

You could say a bakery was the tipping point. In 2016, Adam Young, who was executive pastry chef at the luxury resort Ocean House in Watch Hill, R. I., opened his French-inspired bakery, Sift Bake Shop, in Mystic. It drew the attention of a local crowd for its 81-layer croissants and sticky buns submerged in toffee sauce. Then Mr. Young landed on Food Network’s “Best Baker in America” in 2017. He won in 2018. Craziness ensued.

“It used to be like Disney,” Mr. Young 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. Young and his team reimagined the space and process within the clapboard building on Water Street to be more efficient. They also added a rooftop bar, and opened Young Buns Doughnuts around the corner on Mystic’s main drag. Though the waits at Sift Bake Shop are now shorter, lines of eager guests still arrive daily.

Not that croissants alone put Mystic on the map. When Dan Meiser and James Wayman opened Oyster Club, a restaurant devoted to local seafood and products on Water Street in 2012, it awakened a desire for sophisticated food. While there were many restaurant options then, none were necessarily destinations.

“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 Club, which is now part of Mr. Meiser’s restaurant group, 85th Day Food Community, continues to serve local vegetables, meats and fish with a fresh take. Native monkfish, for example, is prepared with shio koji buttermilk, and polenta made with corn from Davis Farm, which has been operating since 1654.

Mystic seems to be the buzziest place in New England these days. Spots like the Port of Call, a nautical-themed cocktail lounge that features drag shows and serves small plates like crispy boqueróns made with local smelt and beef tongue gyros, and Nana’s Bakery & Pizza (co-owned and run by Mr. Wayman, who parted ways with Mr. Meiser last year), which offers made-to-order doughnuts and pizzas from organic, naturally leavened dough, are landing on “best of” lists. The Shipwright’s Daughter, which anchors the Whaler’s Inn, a more than century-old property across from the Mystic River that’s been updated to feel beach-chic contemporary, is the newest restaurant earning accolades for its worldly spin on sustainable seafood, like fluke from Block Island Sound, drizzled in an herby green romesco sauce and served with roasted summer squash. It’s helmed by David Standridge, who was lured from New York City by the area’s beauty and bounty.

“It’s kind of paradise,” Mr. Standbridge says of the beaches, farms and boating community. Sure enough, look through the window of the restaurant’s elegant, deep blue-saturated dining room, and you’ll see kayakers and sailboats flitting along Mystic River, surrounded by rolling green hills.

The fanfare isn’t limited to Mystic.

Old Saybrook, about 22 miles to the west, has ebbed and flowed as a popular beach town through the decades. Its busy center with big box retailers belies a perimeter of breathtaking beaches and verdant waterfront properties.

The Rat Pack used to play at the old Terra Mar Hotel — now the luxe Saybrook Point Resort & Marina — and, after spending her childhood summers in the borough of Fenwick, the actress Katharine Hepburn retired there until her death in 2003. It’s a point of pride for the town. The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center — the Kate — is on Main Street in what was once the Town Hall, featuring a museum and performance space that sees a rotation of concerts, theater productions and films, including Hepburn classics.

Now it’s where two notable chefs are expanding.

“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 a few years ago might not have pulled in diners for its five- and seven-course tasting menus the way it currently does. Mr. Taylor had launched the restaurant in 2017 in Essex, north along the Connecticut River. While the taco joint Los Charros that spun out of that location in 2018 is booming, the appetite for an elevated dining concept never took hold the way it has now in Old Saybrook.

Foie gras “Popsicles” and lobster served on a bed of beet fusilli may seem stuffy, but Mr. Taylor wants it to be anything but. An open kitchen and chef’s counter and sea-themed mural over the expansive bar make for more fun than formality.

The desire to upend expectations is also Joel Gargano’s intention. In late July, the chef and his wife, Lani, opened Gargano Pasta & Italian Market — also on Main Street — which they describe as Eataly with a New England flair. “We need to get out of the stigma of dockside places,” said Mr. Gargano, a Connecticut native, lamenting the shoreline’s reputation for being competent only with fried fare.

In addition to Italian pastries, salumi and formaggi, and prepared and to-order items, there will be a pasta lab, where you can see chefs at work and get their recommendations for what sauces marry well 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 food hall also has bread made with local‌ grains, such as red fife wheat from Skowhegan, Maine, and spelt from Oechsner Farm in New York. This bread, along with dishes like rigatoni integrale, which uses a toasted rye from Maine Grains that stands up to a hearty beef ragù ‌Bolognese, is a favorite at the Garganos’ Grano Arso restaurant in nearby Chester.

The polished Italian spot brought a luster to the small town when it opened in 2017. An artsy enclave of 3,800, Chester was settled along the Connecticut River in 1692. The town has a history of shipbuilding and milling, and is filled with colorful homes from the 17th and 18th centuries, along with oak and maple trees, some with diameters as wide as golf carts. Now it, too, is seeing a revival bolstered by a strong food scene.

It was Chester’s Sunday Market that originally drew the Garganos to the town. Vendors peddling produce, baked goods, cheeses, fish and meats to the beat of live music shut down Main Street for a few hours every Sunday from mid-June to mid-October. The pride and enjoyment of residents is best exemplified by the chef Jonathan Rapp of River Tavern, another celebrated Chester restaurant that champions local products. It’s where he gets his inspiration and ingredients for Dinners at the Farm, a Sunday night series that runs for 10 weeks each summer and might include dishes like cool sweet 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 appetite for more refined and creative cooking that he and other chefs are seeing. “Four years ago we didn’t sell nearly as many tasting menus and that’s really exciting.”

Now the question is: Will the same magic happen elsewhere? Later this month, Sift is opening in Niantic, midway between Mystic and Old Saybrook and the river towns. It will be in a new building, home to other eateries.

Niantic, a village within the town of East Lyme, which happens to be where I grew up (shout out to the Vikings), has had a slow but steady ascent as a tourist destination. A 1.1-mile boardwalk along Niantic Bay was completed in 2016, after more than a decade in the making. Chains on the main strip, like McDonald’s and Friendly’s, have been replaced by indie establishments like Dev’s on Main, serving Asian- and Latin-infused small plates, and Gumdrops & Lollipops, a classic candy and homemade ice cream shop. Last year, La Llorona opened, bringing southwestern Mexican flavors and ingredients to an area that hasn’t seen a lot of spice.

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

The returns, so far, are very satisfying.

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