Monday, November 8, 2010

Restaurant Club: Oyster Bar

Restaurant Club time again! This session of club was held at the famous Oyster Bar in the even more famous historic Grand Central Station.

The usual crowd joined us and a feast was had by all. Due to the nature of many of our dishes and everyone’s desire to try as much as possible, we decided to do our meal family style instead of individual appetizers or entrees.  I missed most of cocktails as it was a weeknight dinner and I get out of work the latest, but dinner carried on for a full 3 hours after my arrival, so I can't have missed much.

We started with cultivated Maine mussels steamed with white wine and garlic ($12.95), smoked North Atlantic salmon ($12.95), jumbo shrimp and jumbo lump crabmeat over classic Caesar salad ($28.45) and 4 Belon wild raw oysters from Maine ($3.95 each). And a bottle of Diseno Malbec 2009 from Mendoza, Argentina ($36).

Everything was excellent, although the wait staff seemed a bit put off at our plan to eat family style, snapping at us over our request for a set of utensils to serve with.  Things quickly smoothed over though and soon our servers were smiling and cheerful again.

The smoked salmon came garnished with large, juicy capers and a side of bread (this in addition to the bread basket already provided, filled with crumbly biscuits and those seeded rectangular crackers popular in bread baskets). The mussels were also excellent; however I do take exception to being served a closed one. I understand occasionally a shell won't pop but I feel that's a loss the restaurant should eat, so to speak, not one they should pass on to the customer so overtly. None the less the open ones were steamed to perfection, with none of the chewiness one encounters when shellfish is overcooked, as it so often is; the garlic wine sauce was delicate and flavorful and the crumbly biscuits soaked it up perfectly.

Our oysters were good, and pre-loosened from their shells.  They were on the small side, a disappointment only because they are one of the pricier oyster options at over a dollar more per half shell.  They really were an appropriate size for eating.  I garnished mine with some hot sauce and splash of lemon.  We were also served cocktail sauce for garnishing.

The wine was a great choice. Traditionally one would never even think to have a hearty red wine with seafood, but we're a modern crowd following modern trends. A slightly woody, earthy (the label extolled coffee and chocolate flavors) tasting wine, the Malbec went down smoothly with our meal. A second bottle was ordered to enjoy during entrees.

Our entrée selections, also enjoyed family style as mentioned, were the fried calamari with marinara sauce ($9.95/pictured), Cajun fried Florida popcorn shrimp ($13.95/pictured), clams casino ($10.95), smoked Idaho brook trout filet with horseradish cream ($7.25/pictured), and sautéed Peconic Bay scallops with garlic herb butter ($30.95/pictured).

Again, for the most part, wonderful food. The calamari was mostly rings with a few of those small whole body squids adorning the plate.  Because I and at least 2 others at the table prefer the rings, this worked out fine for us.  The marinara sauce was served room temperature and was sweet, I would have preferred it hot, both in temperature and flavor, but I’m not sure what proper protocol is for calamari sauce.  The popcorn shrimp were tiny but not over-breaded – they were light and easy to eat and came served with a spicy roumalade sauce.  The clams casino (pictured) tasted good but lost me on presentation: they were simply clams on the half shelf with a piece of slimy looking bacon unceremoniously folded on top.  Personally I felt like the bacon should have been better crisped (perhaps if they had been cooked under a broiler for top heat? Or perhaps dicing it so as to change its shape, appearance and cook-to-crispy time…) and more attention put towards appearance.  They were tasty though – enough so that after everyone had taken one, I asked around and then took the last for myself.

I had had my doubts over both the smoked trout and the bay scallops when we were deciding on our selections and was very pleasantly surprised by both.  The trout was fat and moist and the generous mound of horseradish sauce had just the right amount of ‘bite’.  The scallops were small, as bay scallops are, and in a very tasty garlic sauce that like the mussel sauce before it was excellent on the biscuits.  The serving was the most generous, although no doubt that had something to do with it being an official “entrée” as opposed to many of our selections which were off the appetizer section of the menu.

While ordering desserts one table member also tried to order some of the old fashioned fish and chips ($21.95) to go to bring home to her husband but was informed the restaurant was sold out.  Despite this disappointment, we soldiered through the rest of our meal… only to discover one of our dessert selections, the pumpkin panna cotta with crystallized ginger ($7.25), was also sold out.  It was only about 9:30 on a Friday night.

For dessert we ordered Florida Key lime pie ($7.25), peach apple clafoute tart with brown sugar crisp ($7.25) and the six layer nougatine chocolate ganache cake ($7.95).  The Key lime pie was smooth, creamy and fresh tasting with the slight sourness one should expect from a Key lime pie and not at all gelatinous as some lime pies are.  The six layer cake got excellent reviews from my table mates (I did not try it as I’m no fan of chocolate cake), but the peach apple tarte was not too popular with a good half left untouched by the end of the meal.  Its not that it was bad persay, it was simply flavorless… perhaps due in part to featuring peaches, a fruit not in season at the moment and therefore no doubt not particularly fresh.  In New York, in November, chef’s should probably stick to just apple in their tartes.

The restaurant is huge with a full dining room, a raw bar section and a salon, but at peak dining hours be sure to call for a reservation – when I arrived at 6:30 to meet my club members the place was packed.  I would not be surprised if the chair my friends had saved for me at our table had literally been the only empty seat in the house.  Also be prepared – the restrooms have attendants, or at least the ladies room did, so either be ready to have to awkwardly ask for a paper towel to dry your hands, or come prepared with a dollar to buy one (because lets face it, that’s what you are doing). 

Despite a few let downs such as the out of stock options, the slight snippiness of our server and the presentation of the clams casino, overall it was a wonderful dining experience and I would whole heartedly recommend the Oyster Bar if you are looking for fresh, well prepared seafood in possibly the easiest to get to location on the planet.  The menu is a bit difficult to read, being tightly packed and written in a font reminiscent of handwriting and in all capital letters, but what it lacks in readability is made up for in selection.  I also appreciated knowing the origins of much of the seafood selection, espcially since almost all of it was domestic (there were several Canadian oysters available as well).  In part because we mostly ordered appetizers our feast was incredibly affordable, clocking in at $83 per person after tax and tip.  Not bad for a 5 person, three course, feast.

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