We spend a lot of time talking about where our oysters come from, how they are grown, and the people behind the cultivation. Now, it is time to go further to see how these magnificent bivalves end up on our plate. How important is restaurant service and presentation versus sourcing? What about sauces, plates, menu descriptions or even server interaction? I have started asking that question more and more, as we only see the start of the oyster chain here in the shop. I took Lori Budlong (our fearless sales manager) and Tomas Garcia (from Specialty Foods Boston) on a quick tour of some oyster serving establishments in town. Here is what we found:
Stop 1 – Saltie Girl, Back Bay, Boston
One trend in seafood is the service of high end tinned fish, mollusks, and bivalves, just as they do in Spain and Portugal. Saltie Girl brings that to Boston, with a huge menu of tins, plus local seafood offerings, caviar service, and a raw bar. The space is small and intimate, with bright tiles, tins on display like a French boulangerie, and warm lighting. The menu is quite expansive, so server interaction is a must. There is a clipboard with the Raw Bar selections, which were four East Coast oysters, one West Coast oyster, clams, East and West Coast urchin, as well as some crudos. We spoke to the chef about some of his oyster choices, and his gushed about bold and strong flavor profiles, as well as his love for both coasts. We ordered oysters, two tins, and two other selections from the raw bar menu. We were floored by the array of food we were served, elbowing each other for the last bites or drips of sauce.
LB: Saltie Girl was inviting and fun. The “Build-a-Bite” concept for tin presentation was a win. It allowed the diner to enjoy the same product any number of ways. It was as though each bite was a first kiss. Sometimes you wanted to do it again and sometimes you wanted to try something new. Our server was a caricature of epic proportion and the accoutrements incredibly well executed. It almost made up for the oysters, which were as fresh as could be, but could have used a more delicate hand in shucking. In addition, I would have appreciated more details about my oyster options by either the server or the menu. Often esthetic and service can help to compensate for missed details and/or lack of experience.
Stop 2 – The Maiden, South End, Boston
Our next stop was at the Maiden in South Boston, a bustling neighborhood of your professionals with the feigning waft of Whitey Bulger’s crimes. The space is cozy, perfect for a casual night out with an area for dining and a large yet comfortable bar. The menu has a daily oyster list insert, along with a charcuterie list, cheese list, snacks, and then a few entrees to choose from. For each oyster on the menu, there was a brief description of the flavor profile, as well as the harvest location. The oyster list rotates almost weekly, as it is Chef Tyler’s goal to have a variety of locations as well as flavor profiles. What was refreshing about the menu was that there was a choice of sauces available for your oysters, at no extra charge, so there is not room for discarded cocktail sauce. We ordered a large bowl of mussels, a small plate, and then some oysters. Whe the oysters arrived, we were tickled to see that each sleection was marked on the tray by a clothespin bearing the name of the oyster. No more guessing as to which oyster is which!
LB: P’s & Q’s? Neither were in question here at The Maiden. Clean, warm and unpretentious. The menu, view of the oyster bar and server input were all on point, and helped to determine what we would order. I was thrilled with the resources available and the execution was seamless. Side note: One of my pet peeves is how many gratuitous food items are thrown away at restaurant level. It is such a waste. I applaud The Maiden for giving us plenty of creative options for dressing up the dish, yet NOT serving us anything we didn’t ask for. Thanks!
Stop 3 – Waypoint, Harvard Square, Cambridge
Waypoint was a hub of buzzing excitement, even on a Wednesday night. It is located just outside Harvard Square in the old Cambridge furniture district, and is a relatively new place to grab oysters and inventive seafood dishes. The menu is separated into sections with just a few selections under the headings of raw bar, snacks, caviar, pizza, pasta, plates and roasts (for two to three people). This trendy spot is decorated with large neon signs, reminiscent of a crab shack on the bayou (but with more expensive light fixtures). There is a separate shucking station next to the host stand, so people waiting for their tables can watch the action up close. They have just a few options coming from the raw bar, but the show element is truly a draw. Once we sat at the bar, we ordered a plate of oysters, and were treated to a snack or two by the chef. It was refreshing to see the raw bar service without the omnipresent metal dishes that we have become used to, and our oysters were served in a shallow earthenware dish. The impressively shucked oysters were served with cocktail sauce, a fennel mignonette, and a house made hot sauce that I wanted to drink. I think Tomas just about did.
LB: Across the river to Cambridge we went to Waypoint. The vibe was entirely different and the scene was popping. Upon entering the restaurant, I literally bumped into a modern oyster display case and shucking station. I was prepared to be wowed. We took a seat at the bar and perused the menu like a treasure map with no X to mark the spot. So we asked. Maybe the bartender just didn’t like oysters, but the experience, so far, was underwhelming. That was until the oysters arrived. The oyster dressings were wonderful and the presentation alone made everything better.
It was the consensus of the group that the Maiden was by far the most pleasing of all. The oysters were well presented, and the menu and service style were perfect for the restaurant. We were well informed without too much server interaction, but the conversation with our server was the icing on the cake, as he knew exactly what wine pairing would be best with our oysters. Waypoint’s service was impeccable, but there was not much to go on in terms of learning about the oysters we were eating, which is sometimes the largest part of the fun. The seafoodgasm at Saltie Girl was intense, but the oysters did not shine as much as some of the other items we dined on.
The conclusion is this: the shuck matters. With all three establishments excelling at their craft, the difference came in preparation. Everything was fresh and clean, but without proper presentation, it can leave a sour taste in your mouth. Make sure your oysters are clean, have no torn or ripped gills, and the bellies are intact.
We give a shuck and so should you.