It is a dream for foodies and a nightmare for kitchens.
I could hear it in the voice of Scott Dickmeyer, executive chef at The Oyster Bar, when I asked him about the half-and-half option the 120-plus-year-old restaurant offers.
I dont think there is another restaurant I have ever been to that does that, he said, trying to hide his angst.
The half and half lets diners order any two entrées – including off-menu features – and receive smaller portions for the price of the more expensive of the two. And when you look at the menu of this legendary seafood eatery, you will love that option.
I was really in the mood for seared tuna, but the featured Seven-pepper-seasoned, flat-grilled prawns over Bolognese was too hard to pass up.
My half and half was a win-win as both were fantastic.
The sausage and ground beef Bolognese was maybe the best component of all and I could have eaten an entire plate of it. It was meaty, rich and the sausage was a little spicy. The gnocchi, which were not house-made, were a little firm and chewy but still enjoyable. The jumbo shrimp were seared on one side until a crispy, spicy crust formed and there was nothing to criticize.
The gnocchi was joined by caramelized fennel, onions, spinach and a little prosciutto and coated with a lemon-butter sauce in my half order of yellow fin tuna. The tuna, which came whole in a wedge, was also topped with a dollop of super-sweet tomato marmalade. The tuna was exceptional in quality and preparation, and the marmalade really rounded out the dish perfectly with the prominent fennel and salty prosciutto.
The half-and-half option also created an endless variety of surf-and-turfs.
The land items I had, however, were a mixed bag.
The Oyster Bar Ribs, Dickmeyer said, are applewood smoked for three hours then finished in a beer-filled steamer before serving. The texture was great – the meat clung well to the bone but was still fork tender and juicy. The house-made barbecue sauce was more sweet than spicy, but there was a little kick. I think the smoke flavor was lost a little under the sauce and, perhaps, in the steamer, but they were still fine ribs.
The Veal Picatta was not so fine. The pasta with prosciutto, asparagus tops, artichoke hearts and tomatoes in a lemon-garlic butter sauce was wonderful, and I ate every last morsel. But the two cutlets of veal were too heavily breaded and that breading easily fell from the meat, which was not seasoned and a little tough. The Parmesan cheese on top of the cutlets did not melt, so, yes, the dish was a bit tepid.
The clam chowder was worth the trip alone with a rich, creamy base and a generous amount of meaty clams and bacon.
The only knock was getting not one, but two inedible bay leaves in a cup of it. It was also way better than the oyster stew, which had two sweet, delicious big count oysters, but a rather bland, loose broth.
I also found it odd that these two soups are staple options, but they were not on the menu. The same holds true for the calamari and Louisiana barbecued shrimp appetizers. Dickmeyer said the restaurant is looking at getting new menus created soon that will include them.
The calamari was exquisite. Cut into strips instead of rings, it was lightly dredged in flour and fried until crisp and then served with caper and tomato-spiked lemon-white wine cream sauce. The briny capers and the buttery sauce was magical on this cephalopod.
The Mussels & Clams Italiano appetizer was even better. Prince Edward Island mussels and littleneck clams were sautéed with garlic, lemon, tomato and fresh basil in a zesty Sicilian tomato broth.
The mussels were fresh, surprisingly mild and outshined the clams, which were too strong and perhaps a little past prime. Two did not open while cooking, which was a bad sign. Regardless, I drank down every drop of the broth and really enjoyed dunking the Oyster Bars hot, freshly baked bread into it.
I also drank down every drop of the briny, buttery fresh-shucked Blue Point oysters. They were immaculately cleaned and just sublime.
Other great finds:
The Greek salad with evenly diced feta, cucumbers and red onions, and small Kalamata olives, which made it easy to negotiate.
The fresh mahi-mahi, which I had pan-sautéed. This normally firm, meaty fish was really tender and moist.
The Oyster Bar Signature Walleye lived up to its billing. It had a walnut-cornmeal breading and was fried until perfectly crisp.
The Oyster Bar has to be proud of its old-fashioned, downtown digs. It is dark and has the feel of an old gangster hideout – secret back room and all. You just feel like every mark on the floor and every nick in the aged bar could tell a story. It is perfect for a special night out, a romantic rendezvous or just a couple of hours of reminiscing with friends and co-workers, which I did during my recent visits.
And the servers did everything to make my parties welcome. In the main room, we were never left alone long and the folks smiled and filled our coffee cups long after the meal was over. Even as closing time approached on a slow weeknight, we never once felt urged to hit the bricks.
The server who waited on me in the back room was just as cordial, but it seemed like we were a little out of sight-out of mind with several lulls. We also got to see a couple of employees haul buckets of kitchen waste out the back door, but I guess that is what I should expect in the secret back room.
And given I was ordering labor-intensive half and halfs and since I will probably do it again next time I visit, who am I to complain?
Restaurant: The Oyster Bar
Address: 1830 S. Calhoun St.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday
Handicapped accessible: No
Alcohol: Full bar
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Calamari ($10.95) mussels and calms Italiano ($10.95), prawns ($24.95), veal picatta ($19.94), ribs ($23.95 full; $17.95 half slab), tuna ($22.95), walleye ($19.95), oyster (6 for $11.95)
Food: ** 1/2 (3-star maximum);
atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).