The oyster is often overlooked as the quintessential New York food, but there was a time when oyster carts were as common as food trucks and hot dog stands. Times have changed, but there’s still plenty of oysters being shucked across the city, and they happen to be the perfect summer food. Still, a good oyster is like finding a good man, and you can’t eat just any old oyster. So what to look for? Well for starters, freshness. Walk into an oyster bar to find a pile of pre-shucked oysters and you’d be wise to head to avoid the raw bar and head toward another section of the menu. A good oyster arrives artfully shucked with no ragged edges or mangled bodies, no questionable coloring or offensive smells. The perfect oyster lies in a shell its own cool liquid, ready to be slurped (or delicately spooned out if you prefer) in all its briny glory. Then, there’s the ambience to factor in – al fresco or in a bustling New England-style joint, a trendy SoHo bar or in the heart of Grand Central.
We’ve waded through the best and the worst of oysters, both raw and cooked, and compiled a list of our favorites. There’s raw oyster specials at Fish, awesome happy hour deals at Maison Premiere. and a killer selection of fresh, succulent oysters at Aquagrill. But it’s not all about the raw bar. Take the oyster roll at Pearl Oyster Bar, the oyster pan roast at John Dory Oyster Bar, or the oyster burgers at Cornelius. Here’s a few of our favorite finds and deals this season…
Address: 280 Bleecker St., at Jones St.
Phone: (212) 727-2879
Where the New York dining scene is concerned, Fish flies relatively under the radar. But this is a haven for serious oyster lovers. While we’d love to keep their oyster special a secret, where’s the fun in that? So here’s the deal… Order the $8 Red, White & Blue special and you get six Blue Point oysters and your choice of a house red or white wine, or a PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon). (Just do us a favor and keep it to yourself.) Beyond this special, you can expect to find a daily mix of east and west coast oysters including Malpeques, Wellfleets, Spinney Creeks, Fanny Bays and Kumumotos. Or you can dress up your oysters by ordering the Angels on Horseback, a British classic of raw oysters wrapped in double-smoked bacon and topped with horseradish and cocktail sauce. Fish’s fried oysters vie for attention, too, with six to an order, each come topped with a seaweed salad and ginger soy dressing. If that’s no enough, there’s also the oyster roll and oysters rockefeller.
John Dory Oyster Bar
Address: 1196 Broadway, btwn. 28th & 29th Sts.
Phone: (212) 792-9000
We can’t talk about oysters without nodding to the selection at John Dory Oyster Bar. Not just because the oysters are impeccably shucked, but also for the cilantro and chili-spiked mignonette that accompany them. Our advice? For starters, arrive early and nab seats at the raw bar for a front row seat to the shucking frenzy. More importantly, don’t stop at raw oysters. Chef April Bloomfield has also mastered the art of the oyster pan roast here. Even better, the dish comes with uni crostinis, generously slathered with sea urchin and perfect for dipping into the luscious broth.
Pearl Oyster Bar
Address: 18 Cornelia St., btwn. Bleecker & W.4th Sts.
Phone: (212) 691-8211
Just around the corner from Fish is another worthy oyster contender by the name of Pearl Oyster Bar. We won’t weigh in on who has the best lobster roll (not now anyway), but we will admit to bouncing back and forth between the two for an oyster-off. And why not? At Pearl, their exceedingly fresh market oysters arrive six to a plate. While we’re partial to raw oysters, we take exception with the fried oysters because they’re some of the best in the city. It’s gets better. Order chef Rebecca Charles’ oyster roll and you get an overstuffed roll, topped with tarter sauce and sided by a mountain of shoestring fries. (We recommend stuffing a few fries into your roll for added salty crunch.)
Address: 210 Spring St., btwn. 6th Ave. & Sullivan St.
Phone: (212) 274-0505
Stylish and sophisticated while still maintaining the comfortable air of a neighborhood restaurant, Aquagrill has devoted its entire menu to seafood…and you know we love that. The first thing you see when you step inside is an impressive ice display paved with all sorts of oysters. The oyster selection varies by season, with 20 to 30 oysters featured daily. Right now, you can sample Chincoteague oysters from Virginia, along with a few Washington Olymipas and Rhode Beavertails. Convince a friend to spend the afternoon at an outside table and meditate over a bottle of Chablis and a sampler tray of oysters.
Saxon & Parole
Address: 316 Bowery, at Bleecker
Phone: (212) 254-0350
If you’re a fan of seafood plateaus, you’ll want to spend some time with the one at Saxon & Parole. At $125, their Seafood Tower is far from being a “dollar oyster happy hour,” but for quality oysters, we’ll pay. This one comes with shrimp, smoked mussels and clams, too. Not quite up for the X-large tower? There’s also mini and medium towers, or order a la carte, the oyster selection rotates daily, with the likes of Shigoku, Olympia, Belon, and Wild Goose. Don’t be shy. The servers are all well-educated in the nuances and origins of their oysters.
Address:565 Vanderbilt Ave. at Pacific St.
If you’re on the hunt for a solid happy hour deal in Brooklyn, make a pit stop at Cornelius where Blue Points oysters are just $1 until 7pm. But with oyster specials popping up all over Brooklyn these days, we’re out for more than just a good deal. Take advantage of the happy hour then move right along to their daily selection of oysters, ranging from Malpeques to Hog Islands. One of the most interesting oyster dishes on the menu comes from the kitchen. Their version of surf n’ turf, Cornelius’s house-ground burger comes ingeniously topped with bacon and fried hamahamma oysters. There’s also a great list of wines on tap and 40-plus bottles of scotch to drink with your bivalves.
Address: 298 Bedford Ave., btwn 1st & Grand Sts. (Brooklyn)
We can’t help but sing the praises (again) of this sleeper speakeasy. The charmed French Quarter decor and absinthe bar are both a compelling draw, but what really caught our attention is the intense oyster selection. There’s 20-plus oysters from the East Coast, with a dozen more oysters from the West Coast, all shucked to order. Come happy hour, 20 of the 33 oysters are available for just a buck. Quality dollar oysters are a rare find, so you can expect a crowd, but with the back oyster bar open for the season, it’s worth getting cozy with a few strangers for fresh oysters and killer cocktails.
Grand Central Oyster Bar
Address: Grand Central Station
Phone: (212) 490-6650
We’ll admit that throwing yourself into the hustle and bustle of Grand Central when you don’t have a train to catch sounds daunting. But this is a dining institution and a rite of passage for New Yorkers, oyster fanatics and tourists alike. Besides, Grand Central Oyster Bar is the birthplace of the oyster pan roast, so consider it your duty to sample one here. And beyond the marble pillars, the vaulted tile ceilings, and the history are remarkably fresh, plump oysters. The raw bar menu changes daily, but expect to find oysters from all over, from Virginia to Nova Scotia, with several West Coast oysters to boot.
Address: 122 E. 7th St., btwn 1st Ave & Ave A
There’s no kitchen at this East Village wine bar and cevicheria. In fact, there’s barely even a sign out front. A toaster oven, popcorn machine, tiny sushi fridge, and a microwave make up the list of kitchen equipment at Desnuda. Yet, somehow they manage to pull of some of the most innovative and exciting ceviches in the city. And then there’s the oysters. Freshly shucked, Desnuda’s come with a sampler of sweet, spicy, and smoky house sauces. But the real show stopper here is the oyster smoked with tea leaves and Sichuan peppercorns in a gravity bong. Yes, really. The chef, lights the Sichuan tea leaves on fire, catches the smoke in a shot glass and places it over your oyster. Throw in the free truffle popcorn and you’ve got dinner and a show.
RG Writer: Ali Baker