Not long ago, the most famous place to eat in Mystic, Conn. was a 1970s pizza spot, the co-star of the 1988 Julia Roberts flick, Mystic Pizza.
Now, the picturesque coastal town is among the most exciting culinary destinations on the East Coast, with some of the country’s best seafood, along with heirloom produce, exquisitely crafted breads, superb coffee flavoured with miso, and yes, pizza. Chefs and restaurant operators are seeing Mystic as a more attractive vacation spot to do business than, say, the Hamptons on nearby Long Island, N.Y.
The town, a 2 1/2 hour drive northeast from New York, is dotted with well-preserved 19th century buildings. It sits within the township of Stonington, named by Airbnb as one of the year’s top-trending US vacation destinations.
“This is paradise from a chef’s perspective,” says David Standridge, an expert on the subject: He cooked for the late, legendary chef Joël Robuchon for six years. A few years ago, he decided to ditch New York City for Mystic, one of many culinary professionals who have relocated and amped up the local food and drink scene. It’s an extension of a trend that’s seen chefs seek out smaller, “second cities” such as Indianapolis, San Antonio, and Asheville, N.C., where more favorable economics give greater license to innovate. The word is getting out to consumers, too.
“I’ve seen an increase, especially in the past year, in out-of-town guests coming to Mystic, specifically to eat,” says Standridge. “The food scene here is really blowing up.” Specifically, he sees Mystic bringing in former Hamptons and Newport, R.I., regulars. “They feel that there’s an authenticity here in Mystic that’s very attractive.” Now, he says, for everyone that is traveling up the coast, Mystic is “a can’t miss stop.”
The town, settled in 1654, once served as a shipbuilding port and safe harbor for boats during inclement weather. Today, its primary industry is tourism (a $15 billion industry in Connecticut before the Covid pandemic), and yachts that once sailed past are queuing at the docks.
Standridge runs the two-year-old Shipwright’s Daughter that’s attached to the Whaler’s Inn, a boutique hotel. His daily-changing menu highlights seafood from the New England coast, in particular the bycatch (underappreciated seafood that’s usually thrown back in the ocean), such as sea robin, which Standridge sears whole and serves in a green curry sauce with pickled peaches.
In fact, it’s hard to go anywhere in Mystic and not taste pristine seafood, particularly shellfish and especially oysters, which benefit from growing in sheltered estuaries fed by clean, cold ocean water. Fishing boats come in daily, stocked with big fluke, black sea bass, striped bass, and bluefish, as well as tuna (yellowfin, bigeye, and albacore), mahi, and swordfish.
“We believe that this little corner of the world is one of the most exciting and diverse food communities in America,” says Renée Touponce, executive chef at the new Port of Call. The sleek, nautically themed cocktail bar and lounge evokes vintage wooden racing yachts with its original 1800s teak deck-board flooring. Customers pack the glossy, U-shaped, reclaimed pine bar for tropically minded drinks from head bartender Sebastian Guerraro, a veteran of Manhattan’s Dante, which was named world’s best bar in 2019. Specialties include the Offshore Account, a clarified rum punch spiked with more rum, banana liqueur, reduced coconut milk, tonka bean, and housemade almond orgeat.
Restaurant group 85th Day Food Community runs the enviable boite, along with the rustic barn-styled Oyster Club next door. This is one of Mystic’s pioneering eateries, with a crowd-pleasing roster of dishes from chef Touponce, such as crispy fried monkfish katsu with whipped kelp butter and rigatoni with braised short rib and salsa verde, amped up with seasonal ramps that were foraged down the road.
Oyster Club was co-founded by longtime Mystic resident Dan Meiser, whose wife Jane also operates Stone Acres Farm, a 250-year-old produce and flower farm. The 225-acre property, which hosts a daily farmers market, provides the restaurant much of its produce, including four kinds of heirloom tomatoes, assorted melons, and bounties of leafy greens, such as glossy chard leaves and budding heads of vibrant lettuce. The namesake oysters—sharp, with intense salinity—are harvested daily from the area’s icy water.
“There are other places around the globe that might have seafood as good or as varied, but no place is better,” says Meiser. “We have built our reputation on showcasing the best fish in the world,” agrees Touponce.
If one chef epitomizes Mystic’s powerful food movement, it is James Wayman, a fermentation fanatic and chef-owner of Nana’s Bakery & Pizza. The eight-seat spot has earned national acclaim for its phenomenal thin-crust pizzas, tangy sourdough loaves with rich, dark flavor from fresh grains milled in house, and featherweight doughnuts. The concept was such a hit that in March, Wayman opened a second Nana’s in Westerly, R.I., with a greater focus on dinner service.
What makes Wayman’s pizza so buzzed-about is the crust, which he spent a year perfecting with head baker David Vacca. The supremely yeasty-tasting dough is paper-thin with a slight, tantalizing chew. (It’s no small feat to create a crust this crispy and not burn it.) To make it, Wayman sources most of his grains locally, from Connecticut and Maine, and grinds them in-house. He adds such toppings as a koji-dosed tomato sauce plus mozzarella and a mushroom Marsala sauce blended with amazake (a fermented Japanese rice drink) instead of cream.
Wayman is also renowned for a brilliant way with koji—the mold responsible for making sake and which adds savory umami to dishes. He adds it to everything from brown-butter chocolate-chip cookies to a rye porridge loaf and even to some of Nana’s exceptional coffee drinks, such as one with miso, creating an intense nutty flavor.
Still, the town’s most popular baked goods and coffee come from Sift Bake Shop, a French bakery and café with a perpetual line snaking outside its door. For six years, pastry chef Adam Young and his wife Ebbie have been selling out strawberry rhubarb croissants and mushroom baguettes. During the pandemic they debuted their sophomore effort, Young Buns, a classic doughnut shop whose best seller is vanilla cake coated in salty-sweet brown sugar buttercrunch.
Young was previously executive pastry chef at the nearby Relais & Châteaux property Ocean House, a grand, 69-room, yellow mansion that is the area’s top luxury hotel option (rooms from $785 per night), just across the Rhode Island border. Travelers looking for more space turn to Airbnb for rentals ranging from hilltop mansions to escapes right on the edge of the water.
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