Restaurant Review: Engine Room, Mystic
Popcorn with caramel and bacon—one of Engine Room's made-from-scratch treats.
All images by Jeff Kaufman
The newest, hippest restaurant in Mystic seats 120. It was jam-packed on the Friday night we arrived and we were not surprised. Food news travels fast and the good news is that restaurateur Dan Meiser and chef James Wayman of Oyster Club fame are doing it again—demonstrating by way of a new restaurant called Engine Room that all-natural fruit, vegetables and meat from small farms in the neighborhood and fish from the nearby sea can be surprisingly varied, outrageously delicious and (here’s the wild card) a lot of fun.
The proof, of course, is in the eating. Sink your teeth into the grass-fed, dry-aged smoked beef burger slathered with Great Hill blue cheese, charred garlic butter and red wine “ketchup” and say “Mmm . . . .” Forget Heinz. Engine Room makes virtually everything from scratch. Pickles. Paté. Spiced pecans. Popcorn with caramel and bacon—trust me, it looks and sounds odd but one bite leads to another, especially when paired with one of the sixteen craft beers Engine Room has on tap.
Dig into the big stack, a double-decker burger with crisp cabbage sesame slaw, American cheese and Wayman’s secret sauce and say “Wow.” Engine Room’s burger lineup offers something for everyone: for vegetarians, falafel burgers with spicy yogurt and bibb lettuce and Tofu burgers with sweet chili aioli and carrot slaw; for fire eaters, a burger with a four-alarm habenero-cheddar sauce; for gourmets, a French onion burger.
But while burgers take the spotlight, they are by no means all that Engine Room’s soup-to-nuts menu has to offer. There are bar bites, appetizers, big salads, sandwiches, entrées, sides and desserts. The apps are especially exciting. I fell in love with one involving half an avocado slow roasted with bacon, lime, jalapeño mayo, fried shallots and crispy tortilla. Makes you sit up and take notice: there’s a real chef behind this operation, in this case one for whom nothing is too much trouble if it results in perfection. Deviled eggs? The kitchen devils them with a dazzling array of ingredients—sour cream, paprika, bacon bits, sautéed shallots and more. Not my mom’s deviled eggs. Not mine.
This is what we go out for—taste treats we’re unlikely to cook at home. Beef brisket, for example, turned up on the menu as an appetizer consisting of a smoky tangle of meat on a hot biscuit with house-made pickled onions and creamy ranch dressing. Chicken liver paté, smooth as satin, scented with rosemary and Calvados was served thickly spread on crisped thick-sliced bread. A bit too much bread for my taste but my companions gobbled it up.
Two salads were on offer. Both were big, almost meal-sized as the menu promised. My friends and I shared and liked the spinach Caesar (right) with elusively tasty dressing, Parmigiano Reggiano, spicy garlic croutons and tiny, silvery anchovies crisscrossed on top where they would be easy to remove. I did not.
The king of the sandwich section was a tribute to Katz’s deli in Manhattan. Homemade pastrami—a ton of it, on good rye bread along with a layer of chicken liver paté. Mustard? Of course. Authenticity is the thrill of the drill for the nostalgically inclined.
Chef Wayman’s own childhood food memories go back to his grandparents’ farm in North Carolina and many of his best dishes reflect that: smoked pork, braised greens, fried chicken leg with grits and bourbon barbecue sauce. (Note: Engine Room has one of the largest bourbon selections in the area.)
Not every single thing was flawless. Where and when was it ever? The meatloaf was too dry, the onion rings were over-battered (although they did look stunning) and one of my table-mates thought that the barbecue sauce served with the fried chicken had too much bourbon in it. I disagreed; I thought the bourbon made the sauce.
What followed was a complete surprise. I hate to be a spoiler but with so many more intriguing dishes available you probably wouldn’t order New York strip. But if you’re a steak lover, you should. I can’t remember seeing or tasting anything quite like it: Rolled, tied and roasted the desired shade of pink or red, with a slightly more well-done rim. Not visibly fatty but voluptuously rich and juicy, it looked like a plump filet mignon and it tasted like heaven.
The dessert list was short, different and bold. Except for a pleasant controversy-free wedge of cheesecake, it was pretty much a matter of love it or hate it. Peanut butter chocolate mousse, for example, limits its fan base to folks who fancy both flavors and are not allergic to peanuts. Monkey bread with bourbon caramel sauce was sweet, yeasty and satisfying if you like sturdy, homey desserts, and I do. But the dessert that took the cake was a tangy, citrusy steamed lemon tart topped with toasted coconut.
Before we left we checked out the open kitchen, the counter seating and the communal table and marveled at how respectfully the current owners of the Engine Room have repurposed a fascinating old factory building. We inspected an antique drill press in the bar and gazed up at a high ceiling where exposed pipes, ducts, valves and other industrial features evoked the historic building’s most illustrious occupant, the J.W. Lathrop Engine Company. A maker of fine marine engines since 1897, James Lathrop built his original one-cylinder gasoline marine engine in a barn behind his house in Mystic. I read a plaque on the wall but I already knew quite a lot about Lathrop marine engines. What New England boater doesn’t? Known for reliability, Lathrop engines were distributed up and down the coast. Fishermen swore by them, yachtsmen prized them. Ah, sweet history of Yankee ingenuity and seaworthy success!
Thank you, Dan Meiser and James Wayman for preserving the legend and the building and breathing new life into both.
P.S. That Monk Stout float the bartender sent out has got to be the coolest after-dinner libation on the planet.
14 Holmes St., Mystic, (860) 415-8117, engineroomct.com
Open Monday through Thursday 4 to 10. Friday noon to 11. Sunday 11 to 10. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: bar bites $4 to $8; appetizers $10 to $12; burgers $12 to $13; entrées $18 to $28; desserts: $8.