Published April 03. 2014 4:00AM Updated April 03. 2014 9:34AM
At the Engine Room, Mystic's trendy, new bar and restaurant on Holmes Street, it's really all about the space.
Opened New Year's Eve by the same folks that run the widely acclaimed Oyster Club on the other side of downtown, the Engine Room takes the spot formerly home to RiverWalk and before that, Trader Jack's. But the transformation is so complete it's difficult to recall what used to be. The building's industrial past is now celebrated with polished cement floors, reclaimed wood and exposed pipes - an ode to J.W. Lathrop & Co., which built marine engines here around the turn of the 20th century.
But in this new millennium, the place is filled not with greasy pawed machinists but upscale hipsters toasting the giant drill press that is the bar's centerpiece, scanning the floor-to-ceiling mural that offers a lesson in Lathrop company history, and basking in the amber light that streams through the liquor bottles displayed on the wall that divides bar from dining room.
That's perhaps the most striking characteristic of this new watering hole - it's packed. On a spring-like Sunday night, on a frigid and blustery Thursday, it doesn't seem to matter. The place is jammed and the buzz is undeniable. At the bar and in the tall booths and tables that surround it, patrons open their wallets for the 16 craft beers on tap, and the impressive selection of bourbon and wine.
And like its two previous incarnations, the Engine Room may be destined to become known primarily as a place to drink, not only because of its impressive bar offerings, but also because the food really isn't very good.
We were eager to review the Engine Room, perhaps because of the Oyster Club's reputation but also, what's not to like about going out for a meal in downtown Mystic at a place that boasts of beer, bourbon and burgers?
The beer, at least, doesn't disappoint. The offering of craft brews from near and far is extensive, and the ones we sampled were delicious, some pricey and some less so - Monk's Stout Dupont, 9 ounces for $12, Young's Double Chocolate Stout, 16 ounces for $7.
But we came for the food.
The dining area features an upholstered bench, tables and chairs that runs along the dividing wall, a parallel row of tables a good distance away, and another bar, one that faces the open kitchen.
During our visits, although the place was full, no one sat at that kitchen-facing bar. Now, I'm a kitchen groupie, but I wouldn't sit there either, largely because the space isn't set up for viewing. An expanse of shelving, storage and the expected commercial kitchen clutter divides the bar from the back-wall cooking stations, where all the action is. And frankly, after you taste the food, it becomes even less appealing to think about squinting into the distance to see what's going on back there.
On our two visits, we tried two of the burgers from the seven options offered as the small menu's centerpiece - four dry-aged beef, one pork and two vegetarian (one falafel and one tofu), all served with "house cut fries and a spicy half-sour pickle" and priced from $12 to $13. We tried the French Onion Burger with stout caramelized onions, comte cheese and crisp bread, $13, and the Smoked Pork Burger with pork fat onions, Mystic Cheese Co.'s Melville, spicy dijonaise and pickles, $13.
The fries were darkly crunchy, salty and not a bit greasy. The burgers - offered not in rare, medium and well done, but in "bloody," "rosy" and "crushed" - arrived perfectly cooked but underwhelming. The French Onion came on a soft bun but included two slices of thin, crispy bread inserted in between bun and burger, adding nothing but perplexity to the dish. The pork burger was smoky, but the onions were tough and stringy.
From the "Bar Bites," we sampled the bacon fat caramel popcorn, $5, and the aged Gouda, $8. The Gouda was good and came with chutney and that crispy bread - a much better application. The popcorn, however, was very good, a generous serving of sweet, delicately smoky, crispy corn punctuated by chunks of caramel-covered salty bacon.
We also tried a sandwich, "In praise of Katz's Deli ?," with house-made pastrami, chicken liver pate and mustard, $15. From the entrees, we chose the crispy fried chicken leg with coleslaw, creamy cheddar grits and bourbon BBQ sauce, $23.
These, unfortunately, were not good. The sandwich was served lukewarm, the worst possible temperature for its two ingredients, leaving the pastrami's fat flabby and turning the chopped liver into a soft, organ-forward mush.
And although the grits were delicious, creamy and cheesy, the slaw was nothing but salted cabbage, and the chicken leg tasted reheated yet arrived undercooked, a dichotomy achieved, I suspect, by precooking the chicken, then battering and frying it to order. Its underdone meat cleaved to the bone, making it impossible to cut. But once done, the hard-won separation of leg and thigh joint revealed way-too-pink, nearly raw meat at the center, instantly and completely killing any appetite for the rest.
So when you check out the Engine Room, as you inevitably will, enjoy the space and the booze, revel in the popcorn, but if you want dinner, there are better options in downtown Mystic.