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Mermaid Oyster Bar

oysters.jpg*** — Three Stars

Address: 79 MacDougal St., nr. Houston

Phone: (212)260-0100

Cuisine: Seafood

Vibe: White-washed fish shack

Occasion: Oyster cravings, casual date,  group dinner.

Hours: Dinner, Mon-Thu 5:30p.m.-11p.m, Fri & Sat, 5:30-11:30p.m. Closed Sundays.

Don’t Miss Dish: Mermaid Mary cocktail; Sauteed calamari with feta & frisee; Fried clam strips; Roasted mussels.

Average Price: Cocktails, $11Appetizers, $9; Entrees, $20; Complimentary Dessert.

Reservations: Reservations recommended.

Capsule: Back to the beach for dinner.

It’s rare to find fried clam strips in Manhattan and even rarer to find some that aren’t overly chewy.   So when I spotted them on the menu at the new Mermaid Oyster Bar, I ordered them and hoped for the best.  They were even better than that: Tender clam strips enrobed in a perfectly light & crispy batter.  Even the aioli that came alongside it was remarkable.

I was sad to hear that owner Danny Abrams had decided to close Smith’s in the West Village and transform it into another Mermaid Inn restaurant.   Normally, I’m not one to put decor before food, but Smith’s was stunning.  There was a mirrored ceiling, black leather booths, chandelier sconces, and a gorgeous back bar with gray velvet walls.   Most of the food was inconsistent and the kitchen went through a string of chefs before calling it quits.

This was quite a transformation.  Walk inside and you’ll find yourself in a understated dining room with white-washed wood walls, two tops with elevated metal stools , and anchor light fixtures hanging over the bar.  This isn’t really just another The Mermaid Inn.  This one offers twelve different kinds of oysters — six from the east coast and six from the west coast.   There’s a classic fish shack menu with dashes of creativity here and there: Saltine-crusted oysters on a bed of garlicky spinach, roasted mussels with harissa and aioli, and snapper ceviche.   The cocktail list has some excellent offerings, like one called the Hot & Dirty, a better man’s martini spiced with tobasco sauce.  The Mermaid Mary —  tomato juice, fresh horseradish, and old bay topped off with a shrimp & cornichon stirrer — is just as solid and perfect for when they decide to open for brunch.  I prefer the East Coast oysters to the West Coast, especially the super smooth Mermaid Straits and the salty Mystic oysters. 

As for the rest of the menu, I much prefer the appetizers to the entrees.  In fact, most of the starter dishes are great.  My favorite is the sauteed calamari creatively paired with a tangle of frisee, feta, and mushrooms.  The roasted mussels were simmering in a garlicky aioli with escarole and harissa.  I only wish they served bread to sponge up all of the aioli sauce at the bottom of the bowl. 

There were a few weak points: The snapper  ceviche was watery and the lobster bisque muddy and lacking in the lobster department.  Skip the overly dense hush puppies in favor of the old bay fries or a generous side of bright green spinach.  All of the Mermaid outposts have the same, standout lobster roll served on a bun with old bay fries.  The best entree I tried was first-rate flounder. 

There’s no dessert menu, but guests all cap off the evening with a complimentary cup filled with rich, dark chocolate pudding and one of those fortune-telling fish.   I miss the mirrored ceilings, but I love the extensive oyster selection, the cocktails, and the newly minted laidback setting.   Seeing as I put food before decor, I also like the Mermaid Oyster Bar’s menu much better.

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