When I sit down to talk about food in Connecticut with Dan Meiser, he starts by chatting about Hemingway. I’ve asked about 85th Day Food Community Marketplace, the online provisions shop which draws from the same farmers, artisans and fishermen as his Mystic restaurants Oyster Club, Engine Room and Nana’s Bakery & Pizza.
The concept seemed like a natural outgrowth of the meat and pantry supplies at his Grass & Bone butcher shop, before taking on a new importance during the pandemic shutdown. For a restaurant group whose theme is “our food has a story,” a tale of belief during a long disappointment leading to success is appropriate in 2021.
“In The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago goes out and comes back with nothing for 84 days, but on the 85th day, he hooks the biggest fish of his life,” he starts, explaining the name he gave his food community. “I’m a big Hemingway fan, and that story of hard work and perseverance means a lot to me.”
Manchester native Meiser’s own story includes chapters in Hartford at Trumbull Kitchen, and the French Culinary Institute before working with chef Daniel Boulud at Restaurant Daniel and Cafe Boulud in Manhattan. A return to the capital netted a Restaurant Hospitality magazine “30 Under 30” award for his first restaurant, Firebox, after the Melville Charitable Trust contacted Meiser about bringing quality food to the underserved Frog Hollow neighborhood. (There was also the honor of this magazine’s “40 Under 40” award in 2012.) It was during his next chapter, in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, where his vision took on a more definite shape.
Meiser leans forward, his voice changes tone. “What’s happening with food in eastern Connecticut to western Rhode Island, this region, is on par with anywhere in the country. We talk about Portland [Maine], and I think that’s happening here.”
Oyster Club, where we sit, has won multiple awards for Meiser, executive chef James Wayman, and their team. It has been named one of the top 100 best restaurants in America by Travel & Leisure and the Daily Meal, and has won plaudits from this magazine as recently as this past January, utilizing ingredients from nearby Long Island Sound, the Atlantic, and farms and bakeries which surround Mystic. The reviews of the more tavern-like fare at Engine Room, Grass & Bone butcher shop, and Nana’s Bakery & Pizza in the 85th Day food community in Mystic have been raves — but what happens when it all stops? Meiser recounts the story. “We had to shut down, but it’s not like people stopped eating. How do we still get delicious, local food to people?
“Grass & Bone was always retail with just a little counter restaurant shop with it. We’d always sell bone broth, housemade hot sauce, pickles and greens and eggs from our Stone Acres Farms — a pantry component to accompany the meat,” he says, referring at the end to the working farm in Stonington. “When the pandemic hit, we expanded the pantry to include prepared foods and meals. Soups, steaks ready to sous vide ... when we opened Nana’s in fall of 2020 we added the breads and baked goods. It’s grown to be a full, locally made artisan market.”
The online 85th Day Marketplace pantry offers a deep look into eastern Connecticut’s food culture. Meats from Beriah Lewis Farm in North Stonington and Wild Harmony Farm in Exeter, Rhode Island, milk from Preston’s Sweet Grass Creamery, housemade demi-glace, salad dressing, artisanal compound butters, focaccia, rye and sandwich breads, local Stonewall Apiary honey from Hanover, complete meal kits for pho, rotisserie chicken and macaroni salad ... pages of variety to escape the doldrums of life during the shutdown.
“In the early days, people were so scared to come within a few feet of a stranger we had to find a way, so we also had orders delivered to pickup hubs in Westerly, Stone Acres, Old Lyme, even to New London and Fishers Island on the ferry. It worked, and it meant a lot to our customers because it allowed them to access local specialty food they couldn’t get at grocery stores. It turned Grass & Bone from this little shop into a busy, critical part of the local food system.”
Part of those specialty foods are the breads and pastries made by head baker Dave Vacca at Nana’s. On any given day orders can include sourdough boules, honey-wheat loaves, ginger snap cookies, muffins, bagels and “big, beautiful biscuits.”
Dan, James and Bon Appétit’s Brad Leone worked with chemist and creator Bob Florence to create Moromi, a line of shoyu, miso and fermented hot sauces, all made in North Stonington. Named for the soybean, wheat-koji mix, and salt mash that ferments 6–18 months until pressed into soy sauce, Moromi sauces are made by Florence, who studied their preparation in Japan with families who have been perfecting the art for generations.
“So many people have been cooking, baking, creating in their kitchens this past year than there ever were before,” Meiser says. “Now that people have more access to better food, that’s not going away, but we’ve seen a tremendous outpouring of support from people who want to dine out again. The future is going to be a blend.”
He sees a very bright future ahead for the culinary environment of eastern Connecticut, from seed, to sea, to table. “The fisheries here — there may be places as good — but there are none better, anywhere in the United States. The area is full of farms where people have been raising cattle, growing vegetables and Indian corn since the 1600s. Everything is available to us here, and it’s the best in the country. I really believe that.”
His words bring to mind another quote from Hemingway’s famous book about the old fisherman: “Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.”
Restaurateurs and diners alike are in agreement: we are ready.
85th Day Food Community Marketplace
Pickup days: Tue., Thu. & Sat.
Pickup location: Grass & Bone, 24 E. Main St., Mystic