Let's get this part out of the way first: Oyster Bah is a very dumb name for a very good restaurant. It's akin to Rich Melman's Boston cousin opening a steak house called Da Beef. The staff at Oyster Bah know it is a dumb name. This is likely why they refer to the restaurant as, simply, Oyster. As in, "Welcome to Oyster. I hope you enjoy your meal." Since they do it, I will too.
Oyster is the latest spot in Melman's vast Lettuce Entertain You empire, which has been opening good restaurants with dumb names since the 70s (Jonathan Livingston Seafood, Lawrence of Oregano) and using the restaurant experience to transport diners to other times and places since the 80s. Oyster is the LEYE version of a New England seafood shack, smaller and more casual than its corporate sibling, Shaw's Crab House. During my first dinner there, my dining companion looked around at the wood-paneled walls, the mismatched tables and chairs, and the upside-down bushel-basket light fixtures and began to reminisce about her first-ever trip to Maine. Her husband had once dated a girl whose family had a summer house there and considered himself an expert on seafood shacks. He would've scorned Oyster, she said, and passed it by for some other, more authentic waterfront dive that smelled of salty ocean air instead of garlic butter.
That's fair enough. But Oyster is not in Maine. It's on North Halsted Street, and when it comes to finding decent seafood in that part of the world, we agreed, you could do far, far worse.
The centerpiece of Oyster's menu, of course, is the oysters. You can eat them raw, or you can get them broiled, fried, or char-grilled, which gives them a nice smoky flavor. Whatever the preparation, the oysters are fresh. Oyster, through LEYE, boasts of a long-standing relationship with the oyster growers of North America, and flies in between eight and 12 varieties every day from both the east and west coasts. At the table, you are given for your inspection a menu of raw oysters that changes daily and attempts to describe the flavor each variety by comparing it to a different food, much like a wine list. (Is oyster snobbery a thing yet?) The language of oysters was new to both my dining companion and me, and so, like non-oenophiles faced with a wine list, we decided to cede the composition of a raw oyster platter to our server. She brought us a mixture of briny Atlantic and cucumbery Pacific bivalves already shucked on a bed of ice, with little dishes of horseradish and cocktail sauce. They tasted fresh and cold, and I made one small step toward self-discovery by realizing that I am more of a Pacific sort of person.
The rest of Oyster's menu is sort of a Greatest Hits of New England and Other Places New England Whalers Visited, because why would any self-respecting seafood restaurant want to deprive its customers of ceviche or fish tacos? (There's also a hamburger and chicken for those who refuse to accept that they are, indeed, in a seafood restaurant.) The most expensive thing on it is the $52.95 chilled seafood platter, which contains oysters, clams, shrimp, crab, and tuna poke, but you could be just as happy with the $7.95 plate of smoked trout dip, which comes with brown bread and cornichons—although it tastes more of paprika than of smoke. None of chef Pete Balodimas's preparations is very daring or original, but everything is well executed.
The clam chowder was unusually polite, with dainty pieces of clam, potato, and bacon, but still creamy and delicious. The Atlantic cod was perfectly cooked, with crispy skin and flaky meat, and it held its texture despite its immersion in a clam broth. If more fish tasted like this, then more people would like fish. (Why is it, anyway, that when you want to describe a particularly bad-tasting fish, you say it tastes fishy?) And the Alaskan red crab meat was so fresh and firm that the drawn butter on the side felt completely superfluous. Or maybe it was the taste of victory; unlike some seafood houses that slit open crab shells in the kitchen, Oyster makes you crack and dig for your dinner.
One of the greatest regrets of my life is that I did not eat a lobster roll until I was 30. My adoration was instant and blinding. It's hard for me to recognize if I've eaten a bad lobster roll—I'm not entirely convinced such a thing exists—but even I could tell that the lobster roll at Oyster is a very fine specimen, filled with generous chunks of meat served on a properly buttered and toasted split roll, unimpeded by herbs or shards of celery.
The true revelation of my time at Oyster, though, was the "stuffie," a quahog clam chopped up and mixed with bread crumbs, celery, herbs, and chorizo and then baked in its shell. The crispy crumbs that stick to the side of the shell, what the French call the gratin, are particularly delicious. I have since learned that stuffies come from Rhode Island. I don't know why Rhode Islanders don't brag about them more.
But I suspect that the food wasn't the only reason I was so happy during both the occasions I dined at Oyster. During one lull between courses, while my dining companion was in the bathroom, I sat back and looked around the dining room. Everyone else was in good spirits too: the families, the groups of friends, the couples on dates. People were talking animatedly. They were laughing. They gleefully plotted their attack on the chilled seafood platter. They ordered second rounds of drinks. They stayed to split a slice of the excellent coconut cake (which also makes a good morning-after breakfast).
Late winter is not normally a festive time in Chicago. Probably not in Maine, either. But we were all enjoying ourselves because the staff at Oyster—like the staffs at most other LEYE restaurants I've visited, going back to the theatrically rude waiters at the fake 50s diner Ed Debevic's back in the 80s—believes that hospitality is just as important as food. The bussers kept the water glasses full, even after we'd paid the check. When two dishes were slow coming out of the kitchen, our server stopped by our table twice to keep us apprised of their progress, even after we told her it was perfectly fine. When she noticed my dining companion was drinking his cocktail a bit slowly, she asked him if there was another one he might like better. When we got the bill, we noticed that the second cocktail and the two tardy entrees had been removed. I have no proof that they didn't know that I write about food sometimes, but the odds that I was on a review visit were slim. They just wanted us to be happy, and to come back someday. And we were. And we will. v