Oyster Bar ReviewOctober 1, 2014

Astoria’s Oyster Cafe of New York

Earlier this summer, I trekked out to Astoria to check out a new oyster bar that's been more or less off the usual NYC-food radar. I was pleasantly surprised by Oyster Cafe of New York, a little oasis amidst an ever-changing neighborhood.

If you love the nautical charm of The John Dory, but want the intimacy of Upstate, with a twist of Kanoyama, and happen to live in Queens, Oyster Cafe of New York should be your new go-to spot. This relatively new Astoria eatery by Daigo Yamaguchi has everything you need for a stellar after work pick-me-up: a great array of East and West Coast oysters, knock-out small plates and savory snacks, and a reasonably priced drinks menu.

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The first thing you’ll notice when you enter is the ceiling-high under-the-sea chalkboard art. The shucking station in the back corner of the restaurant is decorated with flotsam and jetsam. Guests either have a choice of sitting at the long counter (perfect for singles and couples) or one of the six high tables.

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I arrived just around the start of Oyster Happy Hour: $1.10 East Coast select and $1.70 West Coast select. Today, they were featuring Sewansecotts (VA) and Samish Bays (WA). I ordered those and topped the half dozen off with another three Kusshis (BC) and Effinghams (BC) for good measure.

Sewansecotts from the Eastern Shore of Virginia are a tried and true favorite. At Oyster Cafe, they were just as meaty and refreshingly briny as I remember them being. Although the shell size seemed a bit small for Sewansecotts, they were still the largest on the plate.

The Samish Bays from Washington were deliciously pillowy and sweet. Their shell had a nice cat paw effect that sort of resembled true Kumamotos. The meat had a medium brininess that transitioned into a silky, mineral finish. Samish Bay is located north of Seattle, between Mount Baker and the magnificent San Juan Islands. In 1919, the very first Pacific (gigas) oysters flourished, after being tossed from their cargo ship. They have since changed the face of the oyster industry on the West Coast forever.

Kusshi oysters grown in Deep Bay, British Columbia are so consistent that I’m able to identify them by sight alone now. However, these few felt a bit different (I might even go as far as to say “off”) than usual. Unlike their usual pearly white and ivory shells, these had a dusty grey exterior. The oyster flavor itself wasn’t pleasant either. They had little brininess and zero sweetness — very strange for this particular brand.

Lastly, it’s good to see Effinghams back on the menu again! These gorgeous Pacific oysters trekked a long way from British Columbia to get to my plate. The meat was plump, but liquor was limited. They didn’t have the velvety black mantle that I’ve come to associate with the name — perhaps they’re using a different genetic strain. The crisp, celery salt-like brininess tastes discernibly different from its Washington neighbors.

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My platter of oysters arrived with a series of little black chalkboard tabs that identified each variety. For accoutrements, I was given couple lemon wedges, a small cup of horseradish, and three miniature squeeze bottles of different sauces: homemade cocktail sauce, ponzu, and salsa verde. The bottles allowed me to apply just the right amount of dressing onto each oyster without any waste. Quite genius!

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I decided to try their popular 3 Bean Salad, which consisted of chickpea, butter bean, kidney bean, grape tomato, celery, avocado and corn with shiokoji dressing. I was intrigued by the dressing — it was made partly with Koji, a special mold used in the production of sake. The combination was really addictive and I found myself scarfing the entire thing down.

Christian (my server and resident Oyster Cafe Instagrammer) probably thought I was a little nuts to order not one, but two oyster shooters. The chef was in the middle of refining the menu, so I inadvertently volunteered myself up as a guinea pig for a new type of oyster shooter. The classic was a straight up Bloody Mary oyster shot. Simple, smooth, but a little too much liquid. The experimental one contained raw quail egg and some sort of citrusy puree. The flavors worked nicely, but the experience was a bit awkward. The contents were suctioned to the bottom, so it took a little finesse to drink it elegantly.

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Overall, I had a great time at Oyster Cafe of New York and would love to visit again. It is a bit of a hike from Manhattan, especially where I’m based. However, it’s not terrible enough to keep me away. More importantly, it’s a great option for all you oyster lovers who are already based in Astoria!

Oyster Cafe of New York
25-07 Broadway, Astoria, New York
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Oyster Bar ReviewFebruary 10, 2014

Rapid Boston Oyster Bar Hopping

The first oyster trip of the year: Boston. This town has one heck of an oyster scene! But with just six hours to spare, I managed to only visit the top four on my list. Here are the findings from my short, yet fruitful trip.

Row 34 Bar

12:30PM at Row34

After spending a relaxing weekend catching up with old college buddies, it was time to switch gears. Kahren Dowcett from Living Arts Institute and I drove down to Row34 (a new restaurant in Fort Point from the Island Creek crew) for a light oyster lunch. It was drizzly and cold, but we fortunately found street parking a block away.

Despite being self-described as a “workingman’s oyster bar,” Row34 was unexpectedly bright and polished. I guess I had imagined a smaller, darker oyster saloon instead of an open, industrial loft fit for a tech startup. But playing true to the no-nonsense descriptor, the usual sea-themed frivolities were no where to be seen. Only essential information were on display. Nothing more, nothing less. I liked that.

Darren served us at the bar, just to the right of the mountainous display of oysters over crushed ice. The restaurant was rather mellow today for lunch. Apparently ICO had their holiday party here last night. There were no traces of debauchery anywhere, but I suspect a few were probably recovering from festivities. The simple “R34″ raw bar ordering card listed a selection of five local oysters, all harvested from Massachusetts. Three were brand new to me. All of the oysters were priced between $2-3 per piece, so we sampled the lot: Row34 from Duxbury, Island Creeks from Duxbury, Howlands Landing from Duxbury, Rocky Nook from Kingston, and Spring Creek from Barnstable.

When our plate of 20 arrived, they glistened. Superbly fresh, all very meaty, immaculately shucked. Accoutrements included cocktail sauce with a side of horseradish (passed), classic mignonette (passed), and a special spicy mignonette (tried once, didn’t quite do it for me.)

The Row 34 Oyster Experiment: Row 34 got their name from their location. They’re grown on the 34th row of the Island Creek Oyster Farm plot, right next to its other acreages of brothers and sisters. However, unlike standard ICO’s that mature on the Duxbury Bay floor, Row 34 oysters are grown out in floating cages. Penthouse suites. They’re occasionally tumbled and tousled, but generally live a pampered life. Did this treatment impact its taste or texture? According to Boston Magazine, it certainly did.

Having tried both Row34’s and regular Island Creek’s consecutively, I thought I detected subtle differences. The liquor from the Row 34’s tasted a bit cleaner, yet brinier. Whereas the Island Creek’s possessed a depth that I often find in bottom-cultured oysters. But then again, I’m not positive whether or not it was an apples-to-apples comparison. One could have been pulled from the water at a different time, a different age.

I can’t wait to talk about the other oysters that I had, but I’m going to save it for another post where I plan to round up my full list of Boston oyster discoveries. I will say that I enjoyed the Duxbury trio flight. It was fascinating to compare and contrast oysters that were all grown in one microregion. We also had a few other bites before we had to go, including the Spicy Lobster Taco’s (great lobster and “salsa,” but not very spicy), and a delicious plate of lime-sprinkled salmon crudo (compliments of the chef). Overall, I had a terrific first experience at Row34. The service was wonderful, timing was perfect, oysters were well shucked, plated, and clearly explained. I’m definitely returning for another round and hope to also check out the original Island Creek Oyster Bar as well.

Row 34

2:00PM at B&G Oysters

The next stop was B&G Oysters in the South End. We had amazing parking karma again. A spot opened up right in front of the restaurant. (Seriously, is this normal?) We entered through the back door, past the iron gate with the charming “Bivalves” sign. The rain had stopped and everything seemed to feel right.

Before entering the main restaurant, I caught a glimpse of the outdoor seating area. The small courtyard was flanked on one side by a wall of ivy. I imagined myself having a lazy and luxurious summer night out there with a plate of bivalves and a chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc. The inside of B&G is quite charming. The open kitchen was at the center of everything. There were no barriers between the customer and the prep counters. It felt like being in the front row of Kitchen Stadium in Iron Chef, except without the camera crew, competitive heat or annoying voice timer.

When 2:30PM rolled around, we were the only patrons left in the restaurant. Nothing was going on except carrot prep and clean up. Our waiter walked over to take our order. I selected half a dozen oysters from a menu that featured 10 East Coast varieties. There were three from Massachusetts — two of which I hadn’t tried before. Oysters were priced between $2.50 to $4.10 per piece ($4.10 for the Basket Island, Maine). Chilmark from Martha’s Vineyard and Nasketucket from Nasketucket Bay were my two MA choices. I also decided to retry the Umami from Rhode Island just for the hell of it. I also ordered the Lobster Veloute, which looked absolutely divine.

Annnnd that’s all that I’m going to report for now.

Wait, what? Why? To be fully transparent, my experience wasn’t great. Several things were off. But it felt surprisingly off — like someone was accidentally dozing, instead of obstinately bombing. Because I had heard so many good things from so many people about B&G, I felt like my situation was out of the norm. Anyway, before jumping to any conclusions, I really want to give B&G another shot. So this report is TO BE CONTINUED…. duhn duhn DUHN. Onwards.

Neptune  Neptune

3:30PM at Neptune Oyster

Neptune Oyster in the historic North End is notorious for its ridiculously long wait times — yes, it’s that tiny and has a reputation of being that awesome — so I strategically scheduled this visit during the least busy time of day that I could think of. My plan worked. The narrow New York City-sized oyster boutique accommodated us four gals quite easily at the back of the bar. Connie Lu from Pangea Shellfish and my college buddy Kacy came out to meet us. Although if it were just me, I would’ve chosen to sit at the front of the restaurant, facing the giant window looking out onto the hypothetical line of envious patrons-in-waiting.

Neptune featured 12 oysters on their menu, with 10 from the East Coast and two from the West Coast, priced between $2.60 to $3.10 per piece ($3.10 for the Kusshi from British Columbia). As a contrast to Row 34 and B&G, the raw menu/ordering sheet at Neptune felt quite exhaustive. Each variety came with a description that summarized the oyster’s general size, level of salinity, notable flavors, and finish. Somebody likes spreadsheets! I ordered Moon Shoals from Barnstable, Basket Island from Casco Bay, and Bee’s River from Eastham.

Even though I wasn’t all that hungry, I had to try the Neptunes on Piggyback: a composition of crispy fried oysters between a base layer of sweet Berkshire pork and top layer of greens with a golden raisin confiture and pistachio aioli. The small plate was both hearty and light at the same time. Quite the delight. The service was a little inconsistent throughout the visit. We were initially well looked after when the place was calm, but attention dwindled near the end when the entire restaurant filled up (as anticipated). I suppose that’s a normal occurrence, so be prepared to wave the waiters down instead of waiting for them to come to you. I’d love to return sometime either on my own or on a date.

Mare

5:00PM at Mare Oyster Bar

Kacy and I ventured on to the last oyster bar. Mare was about three blocks away from Neptune and used a very similar raw bar ordering card. The ambiance was quite different from all the rest. Floor to ceiling windows hugged half of the corner bistro, which I’m sure brought in amazing light during the day. Fellow oyster enthusiast and creator of the Oyster Century Club Jacqueline Church also came out to meet us for my last round of slurps. At this point, I was a little bit, tiny bit, teensy bit oystered out. My wallet couldn’t have agreed with me more. However, with 15 oyster varieties on Mare’s menu, they boasted the largest selection out of the four establishments on my tour. They carried all East Coast varieties and many were brand new to me. My stomach rallied.

I scanned the list for viable options. We ordered a platter of Stony Islands from Orleans, First Encounters from Eastham, and Ichabods from Plymouth.

First Encounter vs First Light: Although First Encounter Oysters, presumably grown near the First Encounter Marsh at Bee’s River in Eastham aren’t at all the same as the First Light Oysters grown by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Popponesset Bay, Mare kind of confused me by putting up a different label up than what was listed on the menu. From my understanding, they’ve served First Lights before, so either the sign was wrong or the menu was wrong. I wish I had a better comparison of the Bee’s Rivers from Neptune and these First Encounters.

I couple drinks and many laughs later, we noticed the time. I had to run soon to catch my ride back to New York City. I thought it wise to order something for the road. The Lobster Roll that boasted meat from a 2.5lb lobster for $25 looked sufficiently extravagant for a “on the go” meal. Mare offered both hot and cold preparation. I opted for the cold — Maine style. It was the Best. Decision. Ever. A few hours into my journey home, I decided it was time for a 5th meal. That lobster roll was phenomenal. The buttered bun was stuffed to the brim with lusciously sweet meat and garnished with tangy pickled onion slivers. If not for the great oysters, I would be happy to return to Mare for this puppy.

 

Tips for Your Own Boston Oyster Bar Crawl

– Start with a light oyster lunch. Make sure to fill your stomach with a little something besides oysters, but remember to pace yourself. Don’t fill up. Drink lots of water. Take a small break after eating to explore the city, and return to location #2 around 3PM.

– Take photos of all the menus (or ask to keep them, if possible) and make note of which oysters you try. Order them by harvest location. If you happen to find oysters from the same microregion (i.e., Wellfleet, Eastham, Duxbury), you’ll be able to compare those flavors more easily.

– Sit at the oyster bar wherever possible. Engage the staff, talk to them about the oysters. They should be plenty knowledgeable about their offerings and willing to help (as long as it’s not insanely busy where you can’t expect anyone to linger for long). If they don’t seem informed or try to hunt down the information for you, think twice about returning.

– 3PM on a weekday (particularly Monday) is going to be your best bet of getting a seat at Neptune without waiting.

– Take photos of your plate of oysters before you slurp them. They’ll usually come in order of how they’re listed on the menu. Sometimes when you can’t recall a name, you’ll at least remember its position on the platter.

 

What’s Next? 

I’ll be posting another entry about the new oyster discoveries that I had along the way. I’m also coming back for more in mid-March (and attending the Boston Seafood Expo).

Oyster Bar ReviewJanuary 3, 2014

Pausing For Oysters at Virgola

Virgola in Italian means comma, or a pause, which is literally what this cozy oyster and wine bar feels like. The sultry, secluded, six-foot-wide converted alleyway serves as the perfect sanctuary for the first oyster interlude of the year.

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Oysters & Bubbly at Virgola   Oysters & Bubbly at Virgola

It’s noon on New Year’s Day and I’m out on my first order of business of the year: a meeting with Joseph Marazzo, owner of Virgola, at his charming oyster & wine den in the West Village. It’s located at 28 Greenwich Avenue, but I think an address incorporating “½” would feel more appropriate.

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Oyster Bar ReviewDecember 19, 2013

First Look: Grand Central Oyster Bar Brooklyn

In the last few years, Brooklyn has established ownership in things that were once seemingly exclusive to Manhattan. Avant garde eateries, underground nightclubs, basketball teams… and now, BK has built its very own seafood mecca.

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The Grand Central Oyster Bar has officially opened its forth franchise in Park Slope on 5th Avenue and Carroll Street. In case you’re curious, there’s also a Grand Central Oyster Bar in Tokyo and Newark Airport, Terminal C… of all places.

BKOB (my nickname for it) is just a few blocks from the Union Street subway station and walking distance from Grand Army Plaza. Although it’s quite accessible, the restaurant is still a good 50 minutes by subway from my own apartment on the Upper West Side.

But there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for a good oyster adventure! I managed to grab a sneak peek inside and “on the half shell,” a few hours before the restaurant’s opening night. The atmosphere was part zen, part chaos. All in all, an impressive evolution from the last time I was there in early November.

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What I like about the BKOB is how modular and versatile the space is. There are three dining areas and each one has its own unique personality. The first room serves as an open kitchen and raw bar/retail shop. Patrons can choose to either sit in or takeout. The retail aspect is currently still in the works, but once it’s up and running, it will provide the neighborhood with some awesome new seafood options.

I was particularly drawn to the selection of 17 different oysters.

  • Bluepoint (Long Island, NY) – $1.75
  • Chef’s Creek (Washington) – $2.75
  • Chincoteague (Virginia) – $2.45
  • Duck Island Petite (Long Island, NY) – $2.35
  • Fanny Bay (British Columbia) – $2.35
  • Giga Cup Select (Washington) – $2.45
  • Kusshi (British Columbia) – $2.95
  • Madeleine (Prince Edward Island) – $2.45
  • Malpeque (Prince Edward Island) – $2.35
  • Malaspina (British Columbia) – $2.75
  • Martha’s Vineyard (Massachusetts) – $2.35
  • Mattaki (British Columbia) – $2.45
  • Naked Cowboy (Long Island, NY) – $2.35
  • Pemaquid (Maine) – $2.75
  • Shigoku (British Columbia) – $2.75
  • Shinnecock (Long Island, NY) – $2.65
  • Totten Virginica (Washington) – $2.95

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I sampled a dozen varieties, but unfortunately didn’t keep track of which was what. Frankly, it didn’t really matter at the time. They were all fresh and delicious, although I did recognize the signature flavor and appearance of the Kusshi, Totten Virginica, and Pemaquid. The platter presentation was more or less identical as the original GCOB’s. The shucking, albeit done in isolation for a photo shoot, was also impressive. I’d be curious to see how all of this goes again when the shuckers are slammed with orders.

On a separate note: I was pleasantly surprised to see a West Coast option for under $2.50 (Fanny Bay at $2.35).

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The middle room gives a nod to GCOB’s lounge. It displays the same juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary furnishings. Gothamist did a comprehensive gallery of interior photos that are worth checking out. There’s a gorgeous cocktail bar towards the front, which I really liked for these photos. What you don’t see here is the fact that this area will be flanked on both sides by flat screen TV’s — so even when you’re slurping oysters and sipping on champagne, you can enjoy the game! (I predict that a lot of Valentine’s Day outings will happen here…)

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Finally, the more formal dining area is set up to accommodate intimate dinners and larger parties. What caught my eye was this enormous chandelier hanging above the middle of the room. It looked like a wheel with several wooden boat models encircling it on the top. It had been brought over from the original GCOB, which I thought was a nice touch.

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BKOB is currently serving a “light fare” aka appetizers and (my favorite) the New England Clam Chowder. No oyster pan roast yet, but I’m sure that will be coming on shortly. There are 10 beers on draft, all range between $7-$9.50. I was particularly excited to see the Brooklyn “Sorachi Ace” and Narragansett Lager on tap. For $11 you can also get a 4 beer sampler (5 oz glasses). Bottled beers range from $6-6.50 and feature your basics. The wine list currently features 15 whites and 2 reds, which I believe will also expand a bit in the near future.

So what’s the initial impression? I was pretty pleased by the raw bar selection and its quality. The mood is still waiting to be decided. I wonder what kind of music, what kind of service, and what kind of crowd will fill these walls. But as for the food, that’s also too soon to tell… I didn’t have any! Next time…

Like with any new restaurant, it will take a few weeks to massage out the kinks and grow into its own. But the “ship before you’re 100% ready” is such a cool and brave mentality. I’m just hoping that the Grand Central Oyster Bar Brooklyn will continue to rep the unmistakable vibe of its home borough: chill, intimate, and proud.

256 Fifth Avenue, Park Slope
(347) 294-0596
oysterbarbrooklyn.com

Oyster Bar ReviewNovember 4, 2012

Oysters at Epicerie Boulud

A quick photo recap of a oyster tasting at Epicerie Boulud on the UWS with my new favorite slurping buddy C!

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The oyster bar offered five varieties that day: Sewansecott (VA, YAY!), East Beach Blonde (RI), Ninimoto (RI), Fire Lake (New Brunswick), and Kumamoto (WA).