All over New England, and in many communities in Connecticut, formerly industrial cities have struggled with what to do with their now-empty factories and mills. After deindustrialization, many New England communities have been left with sprawling, hulking structures with no jobs to fill them. Soon, our suburbs may face a similar conundrum, as shifts in the retail economy have shuttered stores in the great shopping malls that dot our landscape. Is there a more community-oriented way to fill these spaces? A recent visit to the Velvet Vine in Stonington, which opened in December in the Velvet Mill, a restored former velvet factory, may provide an answer.
The Velvet Vine is one of the many businesses that populate the old mill, businesses that complement and strengthen one another. A recent visit reveals a menu that is simple, comforting and artfully done. Co-owner Michelle Isted says her initial idea was for something like a high-end deli to fill the space for takeaway sandwiches. Much of that vision remains on the menu, with high-concept offerings such as a candied bacon and brie panini, with grilled pear and arugula. Another standout sandwich was the classic roast beef, with a wonderfully creamy havarti cheese and horseradish. Many of the condiments — such as the hummus, mayo, mustard and pesto — are made in-house.
In its food and its ethos, the Velvet Vine is quite thoroughly (and literally) embedded in its community. The mill is like an alternate-universe mall, where all the stores are owned and run by locals. No corporate food courts, no stale perfumed air, no holiday sales gauntlets to run. You want locally sourced food? Are you concerned about how many “food miles” go into your food? At the Velvet Vine, the distance your food has to travel to get to your plate is measured in feet, not miles. Bruschetta and brioche (more about the latter in a minute) comes from Zest Bakery, also located at the mill. Cheese comes from Cheeseboro Whey, and several beers come from Beer’d Brewing — all just steps away within the same building.
The Velvet Vine
22 Bayview Ave. #14, Stonington
Price range: Salads $8-$13; sandwiches $8-$12 (roast beef $11); paninis $10-$15 (candied bacon and brie $13); Small plates $8-$16 (nachos $8, kale and burrata bruschetta $11, burger sliders $13); desserts $5-$10 (s’mores sandy $10)
Hours: Wed.-Fri. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Brunch served weekends 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Closed Mon. & Tues.
Ambiance Bright and airy, with a patchwork of industrial design. The Velvet Vine somehow manages to be both minimalist-chic and homey. Tall ceilings and openings into the mill’s large communal central area create a space that is both intimate and expansive.
Service Tremendously friendly. Our server suffered immense questioning about the menu with grace.
Food Affordable and satisfying, if fairly standard.
In the winter months, the Stonington farmers market is open for business in the mill on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., right outside the Velvet Vine’s space. Metal workers and photographers, bakers and psychotherapists: there are roughly 100 different tenants in the mill, according to building manager Eric Pivco. The building was the site of the American Velvet Co. from 1892 to 1996. At its peak in the 1950s, the factory employed some 450 people. Now it’s a factory for other things, bringing a variety of people together for creative endeavors. “I tell all the customers that are new: ‘Be adventurous. Go down that hallway, look around the corner, because there are just businesses everywhere,” Isted says.
While the restaurant’s decor is of the industrial-chic variety one might associate with higher prices, the offerings at the Velvet Vine are decidedly affordable. Isted defines it as “bistro-style,” and the term is apt. The food is beautifully plated, with high-quality ingredients, but is relatively simple and moderately priced. A perfect example of the philosophy is the bruschetta with burrata and kale. Rich burrata mixes wonderfully with the kale, which chef Philip Morgan has shredded into a sautéed spread with garlic. The plates are perfect for sharing, and my dining party thought the burrata bruschetta captured the spirit of the Velvet Vine best: unfussy, simple and delicious.
It seems like every restaurant is putting eggs on their burgers, to differing results. The Velvet Vine does a nice variation, with quail eggs on each of the three small sliders. Why don’t we see that more often? “It’s kind of a specialty niche there, putting those on. Cracking those little eggs over a grill is not something that a lot of people like to do,” says Morgan.
Speaking of eggs, the Vine serves brunch on the weekends, with such offerings as huevos rancheros with black bean-and-corn salsa, challah French toast with a bourbon maple glaze, and a bagel and lox.
The nachos are big and wild, with all the regular toppings. Not particularly groundbreaking or unique, but satisfying all the same. Things progressed along roughly the same terrain — simple and tasty enough — until dessert. The s’mores sandy really deserves its own review, its own magazine, its own restaurant. Nutella, crumbled graham crackers and marshmallow, pressed panini-style between two slices of brioche from Zest Bakery — be sure to save room for this one.
Morgan has been cooking professionally for some eight years, and comes to the Velvet Vine from Latitude 41 in Mystic, where he had been for just over two years. The story of how Morgan came to be the chef at Velvet Vine is borne of the sense of community at the mill, too. His girlfriend owns a photography studio in the mill, so the connection with Isted was easy to make.
In addition to the regular menu, the Velvet Vine also puts together a monthly wine-tasting dinner. For a $30 prix fixe, diners have five wines to taste, along with five different courses off a special menu that changes every month, created by Morgan. (Check Velvet Vine’s website for dates.)
The drinks portion of the menu, in general, is a strong suit. “We wanted to have a well-rounded wine list that is … affordable,” Isted says. Thirty wines are available by the glass, including some varieties from Jonathan Edwards Winery in North Stonington. The beer list is a who’s who of shoreline beer: Pawcatuck’s Cottrell, Westerly’s Grey Sail, Branford’s Stony Creek, Groton’s Outer Light, and New London’s Safe Harbor all make themselves known. Again, community is an important factor here.