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Mystic food impresarios can't stop thinking big

By Ann Baldelli

Publication: The Day

Published April 21. 2014 4:00AM
Tim Martin The Day
Dan Meiser, left, owner of the Oyster Club in Mystic, speaks with executive chef James Wayman, at the facility at 13 Water St. in Mystic.
With two successful restaurants, pair plan butcher shop

Mystic - Thirty-five-year-old Daniel Meiser quips that his brother has diagnosed him with "entrepreneurial ADD" and says he's not sure whether that's a compliment.

The co-owner of Mystic's hugely successful Oyster Club, five-month-old Engine Room, and soon-to-open downtown butcher shop is already planning his next endeavor - an oyster farm to supply his two restaurants - and after that, down the road a bit -perhaps a small farm so he and his partners can raise their own pigs.

Meiser was a rising star in Connecticut's restaurant world when he was recruited in 2010 to help open the food service at Watch Hill's acclaimed Ocean House. During his short stint there he met his future wife, abandoned plans to open a restaurant in the Virgin Islands and started scoping out local properties instead.

He still remembers the day he eyed the "for sale" sign in downtown Mystic on the vacated Parisian Pomme Fries property at 13 Water St., and how as he jotted down the telephone number an employee on a cigarette break at the next-door Emporium shouted over, "You gonna buy that place?"

"Yes, I'm going to open a restaurant," said Meiser.

A graduate of the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan and Bucknell University, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in political science and legal studies, Meiser partnered with his brother-in-law, Jason Steadman, recruited family and friends as investors, and went looking for the best executive chef he could find.

Since Meiser was going to run the business, he knew he couldn't oversee the kitchen, too, so he hired James Wayman, for seven years executive chef at The River Tavern in Chester, and before that, a chef at Water Street Cafe in Stonington Borough.

The first time Wayman and Meiser met, they went foraging for mushrooms on the Salem farm where Wayman was living, and then cooked them up. The day they sealed the deal to work together, they were bluefishing off Meiser's boat.

The duo opened the Oyster Club on Sept. 28, 2011, after extensive renovations and expansions to the two-story, 1,200-square-foot Water Street property. They added a 500-square-foot dining room on one side and a 400-square-foot bar on the other, cutting into the granite ledge that runs around the building. Last summer, they opened the seasonal Treehouse out back - think "Swiss Family Robinson" - space for an additional 70 patrons in addition to the existing 85 seats in the dining room, bar and patio.

The Treehouse has its own menu and kitchen, separate from Wayman's farm-to-table regime at the Oyster Club.

Tricia Walsh, president of the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, noted all the jobs Meiser and his partners have created (36 at the Oyster Club and 58 at the Engine Room and more when the outdoor spaces open up) and the visitors they are attracting.

"They definitely have created a buzz," she said, and added, "and they bring in a whole new demographic."

Seafood from Point Judith

Born and raised on a farm near Greensboro, N.C., Wayman says he has spent a lifetime sourcing foods and eating with the seasons. It's a way of life for him, not a trend, he says.

There are a handful of staples on the Oyster Club menu - the lobster roll, mussels, chowder and burger - but everything else changes daily. There's always a steak, a homemade pasta and vegan dish, but the preparation and sides change with the day and seasons.

Fresh and local is Wayman's mantra.

He buys from farmers, breeders and fishermen that he knows, most of whom are located within 30 miles of his restaurants.

Yes, restaurants.

Just 27 months after the Oyster Club opened, Meiser and Wayman partnered on the Engine Room, a 150-seat (30 of which are outdoors) eatery across the Mystic River at 14 Holmes St., which boasts American comfort food with a Southern flair.

Meiser and Wayman are partners in this establishment, and also on the butcher shop that they plan to open later this year in the old Emporium building, which the Mystic Art Association has bought and is refurbishing, and from which the partners will lease the basement and first floor.

The butcher shop will provide meat for the Oyster Club and Engine Room and be open to the public.

As it is, already, there's usually a pig and a half, a quarter cow, and a whole goat in the walk-in refrigerator at Oyster Club. Wayman does the butchering and has a passion for charcuterie - cooking with prepared meat products such as sausage, ham, bacon terrines and pâtés.

By butchering yourself, there's no waste, and Wayman's offal -a grounded blend of pork shoulder, liver, heart and kidneys slowly smoked with vegetables and wine to make a Bolognese - is a popular item on the Oyster Club menu.

Buying locally sourced food ensures the quality of the product and helps the local economy, Meiser and Wayman said. At Oyster Club, 90 percent of the produce is organic.

Much of the seafood comes from Point Judith, R.I., and the seasonal razor clams are harvested in Watch Hill on a moon tide by a woman who knows where to find them.

Wayman said Meiser - who understands and loves food the same way he does -has given him the latitude he wants and needs.

"It's a wonderful thing, his respect for me in the kitchen," said Wayman. "Dan has a great quality of letting people who have talent use it ... he really allows me to shine."

Meiser is spending more time at the Engine Room these days, and Wayman at the Oyster Club. All the original Oyster Club investors have been paid off. Meiser's brother-in-law, Steadman, lives and works in London, and is simply a financial partner.

'Theory of critical mass'

Meiser and Wayman are focused on their butcher shop, and what they will do with the basement space in the Emporium. And they're seriously talking about establishing a boutique oyster farm to supply their restaurants, which will require an arduous process of applications and acquiring permits.

And perhaps, with the butcher shop, they might establish a CSA (community supported agriculture) project, where members can get regular allotments of meats, fish, sauce and produce, and offer occasional cooking or butchering classes, where they could teach others about food preparation and the use of local products.

Way down the line, maybe they would invest in a small farm, too, to raise some of the crops and meats they use, says Meiser.

Both locals and out-of-towners are patronizing their restaurants, the two say, and noted their investments in Mystic add to the mix of other eateries and retail establishments.

"I believe in the theory of critical mass," says Meiser. "The more great restaurants, food, bars, the better off we all will be."

Groton Town Manager Mark Oefinger likens Meiser and Wayman to the Steamboat Wharf Co. team who first invested in downtown Mystic almost 40 years ago and continue to own and manage numerous properties today.

"They are a tremendous success story," Oefinger says of Meiser and Wayman.

For Meiser and Wayman, the focus is still on the food.

"Our food has a story," says Meiser, explaining that when Wayman prepares a dish, he knows where the beef or seafood came from, how it was cultivated, raised and harvested, and precisely how it was prepared.

Whatever they do in the future, the two say it will revolve around food.

a.baldelli@theday.com

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