By David Nelson
“AND TO THINK THAT JUST THE OTHER DAY, I looked high and low through the supermarket for Old Bay seasoning,” says a friend. She flicks her eyes toward a curving overhead shelf that, quite à la supermarche, holds a tightly packed lineup of condiment containers: Old Bay, Heinz ketchup and malt vinegar, Tabasco sauce and, from France, Baleine sea salt in both fine and coarse grinds.
The gaudy display somehow manages to both annoy and impress, like a Cadillac with tailfins.
A better view stretches straight ahead. If Tiffany filled its window with ice and piled on the pearls, it might not look any better than the seafood bar at the Oceanaire Seafood Room, the Gaslamp Quarter hot spot at Fourth Avenue and J Street. Built smaller than seems wise, the bar has plenty of glamour. Curves like these should be admired, and as it circles toward the cocktail bar, it poses possibilities on a steep slope of crushed ice. At the top, Dungeness crabs appear to aim their pincers hungrily (their gooses definitely have been cooked, however) at such targets as fat lemons, emerald limes and scallops in shells that are beautiful to behold. Interspersed among them are various kinship groups of oysters in hard, rocky shells that look impervious to man’s worst intentions, and great big mussels that would make a Belgian salivate. The blushingly pink shrimp are gorgeous, too, and while the menu lists them as tiger shrimp, they are leonine in size. As an upscale seafood chain, Oceanaire knows more than a bit about marketing, and the bottles of shellfish-friendly wine and beer that sparkle on the ice look good enough to drink.
Local restaurants have attempted to lure patrons with oyster bars for years, but sushi bars have had better success. Three seafood bars have made splashes, however—at Oceanaire and at two long-popular downtown eateries, Blue Point Coastal Cuisine and The Fish Market.
The Oceanaire Seafood RoomA centuries-old phrase informs, “ ’Twas a brave man who first et an oyster,” but chances are he picked up the habit fast. The Oceanaire countermen take evident pride in their selection, which changes daily with whatever flies in from the Pacific Northwest, the East Coast and other hotbeds of oyster fishing. One night, an oyster man occasionally borrowed wine terminology to describe the offering’s selection.
“Large, sweet, mild, spicy, I’ve got ’em all,” he said. “The Blue Points tend to be very creamy with a strong sea finish. But they all have different profiles. I love oysters, and I love shucking.” And shuck he did, holding each oyster confidently in a towel while his sharp knife pried open the tightly closed shell. In very little time, 12 oysters glistened atop a deep pan of ice. Pleased with his work, the fellow added lemon wedges lofted high on upright forks, cups of vinegar-and-shallot sauce mignonette and a dish of cocktail sauce (James Beard called it the “red menace”) thatch-roofed with freshly julienned horseradish. There were two each of six varieties, arranged clockwise to provide an oyster tasting that progressed from mild and sweet to strong and salty (and priced out at approximately $10 per person).
“Yum, yum, yum!” crooned a guest when she had dispatched her share of Gigamotos, butter-textured belons, Strange Bays, Chef Creeks and Blue Points—which, like fine old families, are from Virginia—and still had a Bahia Falsa from Baja California before her. It didn’t have a chance.
Even at the seafood bar, Oceanaire serves half-rounds of sourdough and a big Midwestern relish tray laden with olives, pickles, radishes and other raw vegetables, peppers and pickled herring (cottage cheese would be likelier in Illinois, but the chain’s headquarters are in Minnesota). And far more than oysters can be ordered at the bar. Choices include “The Grand Shellfish Platter” in small and large versions ($35 and $69), a vast presentation of Dungeness crab, scallops, king crab legs, oysters and mussels that does indeed impress. Giant prawns circle like carousel horses in the shrimp cocktail ($13.95). And for those who don’t regard cooking oysters as the slaughter of the innocents, Oceanaire’s Rockefeller rendition ($12.95) is nicely done.
400 J Street, San Diego, 619-858-2277.
Blue Point Coastal CuisineTHE OYSTER BAR AT BLUE POINT COASTAL CUISINE is far roomier, looks sideways at the Fifth Avenue parade through a wall of glass, and presents the option of seating in deep, extremely comfortable booths. It also interprets “bar” in a way that results in such drinkable “oyster shooters” as the Cultured Pearl ($6), which dunks the bivalve in a frothy bath of champagne, minced shallots and snipped chives. The name of the Drunken Thai Oyster ($6) invites mention, as does the combination of Absolut Citron vodka, Thai chile sauce and lemon juice that lubricates both oyster and diner. The iced shellfish case is relatively small and primarily features oysters barricaded in their shells, but the oyster bar menu offers considerable variety. Order the sashimi ($11.50) and anticipate ahi so amazingly buttery it almost melts on the tongue.
Served on a squarish, artsy plate, it is lovely, as is the garnish of tart, enjoyable seaweed salad. On one occasion, the big pat of spicy-hot wasabi suddenly chilled when the sound system played Peggy Lee’s still-sizzling “Fever.”
The oyster bar’s pride and joy is the “Chef ’s Seafood Tower” ($18 per person for a minimum of two). It’s an interesting combination that tops an iced arrangement of oysters, crab claws and sashimi with an upper deck of sautéed mussels and clams. Not bad—but the shrimp cocktail ($13) has the twin virtues of really tender shrimp and excellent sauce, and there are such clever cooked items as lobster pot pie flavored with sherry and thyme ($16) and jumbo lump crab cakes with a poblano chile–fired remoulade sauce ($12).
But oysters rule at Blue Point, and the menu notes that the assortment of a half-dozen served on the half-shell is escorted by a trio of mignonettes. In France, sauce mignonette is the classic oyster dunk and consists of red wine vinegar, minced shallot and cracked pepper. Blue Point makes that one, along with a minced ginger and sake combination and a red wine vinegar–chipotle chile dip. All are interesting with the bivalves, of which a typical assortment might include East Coast Blue Points as well as Royal Miyagis and Fanny Bays from British Columbia.
When the server confides, “My favorite dessert is the butterscotch pot de crème” ($9), the requirements of gastronomic research make it essential to discover what might be so likable about this silken chocolate custard served with chocolate biscotti. Quite a bit, as made evident by a guest who takes one spoonful and howls, “This is a mouth orgasm waiting to happen!”
565 Fifth Avenue, San Diego, 619-233-6623.
The Fish MarketBY ALL ACCOUNTS, THE FISH MARKET was the costliest restaurant ever built in San Diego ($11 million was the “guesstimate” in 1991). It probably retains the title to this day, and the investment in two floors of bayside seating surely has paid off. Those aren’t just tourists thronging the place through the day and into the night —San Diegans eat there, too (and so do Del Martians, at their own branch of this well-run chain).
As it happens, The Fish Market’s oyster bar is the pearl at the heart of the restaurant. Flanked to the right by the sushi bar and to the left by the first-floor dining room, it is backed by the cantina and faces the seafood market across a small vestibule. Topped in pinkish marble edged in elbow-worn wood, the bar juts out in the center in a semicircular, ice-filled bay piled with oysters and clams (mostly $7.75 to $9.75 for six, depending on variety and market prices).
The friendly guy in the baseball cap behind the bar knows just how to deal them, and opens and serves a half-dozen oysters with remarkable speed. He also fearlessly grates horseradish as a last-minute topping for the house red sauce, but the lemon wedges on the side do much better justice to the Alaskan Windy Bay oysters and their Washington state cousins from Westcott Bay and Little Skookum. All are good enough to be savored slowly, perhaps in tandem with sips of a frosty, dry white. The clam selection may include Manilas from Washington and Eastern littlenecks. The counterman prepares quite a few hot dishes as well. After demolishing a garlicky plate of sautéed-that-moment scallops ($13.50), a nearby guest remarked, “Guess this will be my regular spot when I visit San Diego.” His reaction may explain why the counterman cautioned, “After 4 o’clock, this place is crazy.” Any dish from the enormous, printed-daily menu can be enjoyed at the oyster bar, but specialties prepared on the spot include terrific bay shrimp and Dungeness crab cocktails ($6.95 and $9.75), baked clam preparations ($8.25) and an excellent, very sharable sampler of The Fish Market’s own smoked fish.
750 North Harbor Drive, San Diego, 619-232-3474.