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Oyster Club Cooks Up Small Things in a Big Way

Oyster Club is cooking up small things in a big way

It’s a lovely day in Mystic, Connecticut. Attractive people walk briskly through the cheery harborside scene. Tempting New England shops beckon. Pretty altocumulus clouds glide by approvingly. Everything is status quo.

You’d never know it, but in a nearby building two men are plotting a revolution.

Maybe “revolution” is too strong a word. But Dan Meiser and James Wayman definitely want to challenge the powers that be—primarily the domination of big agribusiness over what we eat. The entrepreneurial owner and chef (respectively) of both the Oyster Club and Engine Room restaurants in Mystic are at the crossroads of an authentic regional food culture, and they want us all to taste it.

“Along the Connecticut shoreline, especially up where it meets Rhode Island, we’re starting to see this boom of young farmers,” says Wayman. “They’re trying, as we are, to connect the community of craftsman, fishermen, bread makers, brewers, cheese makers and other artisanal producers spread through the area.

“Instead of supporting giant agribusinesses, you’re seeing people wanting to go back to the small farmer in their community,” he says. “They know it’s more healthy on a holistic level, more healthy for the community, and healthier for the environment.”

The partners have been pursuing an ambitious plan with a few crucial elements. Their original idea to open a butcher shop in Mystic has grown. As this was being written, it looked like their Bigger Idea was about to become fully baked.

“The new opportunity we’re looking at right now is kind of the granddaddy of all of our projects,” says Dan Meiser. “It will put all of the things that we care about under one roof.” Details were off the record, but Meiser says it’s a fairly large farm in the Stonington vicinity. If it closes, the two men will finally have their artisanal butcher shop, animal farm, and produce fields in one place. The sky’s the limit. Once up and running, it will provide for their own restaurants, others in the area, and the public.

That’s not all. They recently cleared the Department of Environmental Protection, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other hurdles in an exhaustive permitting process to open their own oyster farm. Also located near Stonington, they plan to seed oysters by the spring, with their first tasty harvest about 18 months later.

It’s an audacious strategy to help trigger an enlightenment in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and pump the locavore scene. Fueled by a belief that food should be delicious, wholesome, and accessible (think liberté, égalité, fraternité), Meiser and Wayman seem a bit like the Robespierre and Lafayette of shoreline cuisine.

“Our little black book of farmers, fishermen, and artisans is more detailed and more in-depth than most of the general public is aware of,” Meiser says. “We have access to all these amazing products that a lot of people don’t even know exist in Connecticut. We want to share it.”

Both of them get stoked talking about the nearby food artisans listed in that “little black book” of theirs. Hyper-local brands like Mystic Cheese Company, Aaren Simoncini of Beer’d Brewing in Stonington, and Todd Solek’s Farm Hearth Bakery.

It’s smallness, at scale. The ripple effect could bring about some happy changes.

“What we’re trying to do is invest in the community in a more horizontal model,” Wayman says. “It’s taking things like oysters, animals and produce that we raise and making them more available, so people can enjoy it without going to a restaurant.”

Which is not to say they’re discouraging patrons from stopping by their two immensely popular eateries (they’re not). In fact, Oyster Club is both test kitchen and launch pad. Want to know what Meiser and Wayman are talking about? Go eat there. Or at the Engine Room, whose menu is less formal but also reflects the trend.

And how do you know you’d like the food at Oyster Club? It’s good enough for master chef Jacques Pépin. He was the guest of honor at a recent holiday dinner at the restaurant—a Fete de Noël—or traditional French Christmas feast. Pépin created the menu, trusting Wayman and Meiser with the cooking and presentation.

What was for dinner on that special evening?

“Oysters,” says Meiser. “And Bûche de Noël,” Wayman adds. That’s the very traditional French pastry (“Yule Log” in English) featuring intricate layers of buttercream decorated with little mushrooms made of meringue.

Pépin also rendered one of his famous hand-drawn paper menus for the occasion. There’s that food-artisan thing again. It just seems to follow these guys around.

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