Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Restaurant: Grand Central Oyster Bar

Every year around the beginning of June my father and I make plans to head to the Grand Central Oyster Bar because the fresh herring fleet shipment comes in all the way from the Netherlands. The Oyster Bar is a hidden treasure nestled in the revamped subterranean depths of Grand Central and has that unique combination of old New York and modern New York. We always skip the fancier bar and dining room and opt for the regular restaurant. In the past I used to drop in after work for a quick bite at one of the counters, but this was always in the non-herring season.

The excellent chowders and raw oysters are always a draw for me, and up until about 10 years ago would have started my meal. Since that breakthrough day I always get what my dad gets, 2 fresh Dutch herring with the trimmings. At the Oyster Bar this means two boned fillets with finely chopped onion, chives and hard boiled egg. This simple combination of extremely fresh flavorful fish with a little of each trimming makes for something that really is hard to describe. The fish is silky and buttery, almost melting in your mouth with each bite. And, despite the strong flavor of onion, chive and egg, the herring bursts through with a strong distinct flavor that is far from "fishy". Paired with a pint of Heineken, it's the ideal Dutch snack, in the heart of Manhattan. Almost always those first two herring are gone, and we are quickly ordering a third and, sometimes even a fourth. Needless to say it is quite a tradition, and is not something I would recommend eating prior to being in any sort of social situation where someone will be close enough to smell your breath.

Main courses are what you would expect at an old school seafood restaurant. The fish is extremely fresh, perfectly cooked, and the star of any plate, not the accent. Almost every fish, crab, lobster, oyster and clam can be ordered any way you want it from blackened to grilled or fried. Sometimes the simplest preparation is the best way to enjoy fish, and the Oyster Bar does this better than anyone. Usually the only question you need to answer is which type of fish do I want, Mahi Mahi or Dorade to name just a few, and do I want it Cajun or broiled with a spritz of lemon? Either way you can't go wrong. My traditional main course, however, is always fried oysters and french fries. The freshness of the oysters, and the light crispy batter they are fried in make for bite size morsels that taste more like oysters and less like a fried food. The standard thin cut crispy fries are nothing to rave about, but always manage to get finished despite themselves. Simply put, squeeze some lemon on the oysters and skip the ketchup or tartar sauce and just enjoy a basic pleasure in life that everyone should indulge in at least once a year.

I probably shouldn't be telling you this part, but if you ever do make it to the Oyster Bar no meal is complete without exploring a strange oddity of architecture outside the restaurant. Due to the high arches, and marble interior, if you stand in the corners diagonally across from each other and speak into the wall you can talk with the other person like they are whispering in your ear. Despite the distance, you feel like you are having a conversation with them right next to you. Of course there is also the fun of other people not in the know looking at you oddly like you might be crazy or in need of a bathroom.

Real herring, not something in a cream sauce

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