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The Shell Oyster Bar: Bliss on the Half Shell

Note: this is the first of occasional reviews I’ll do about food in the Tallahassee region. I believe this region has a charm and sensibility of its own that could use new voices and champions. I won’t bother with chain restaurants — the local newspaper has those well-covered — and will focus on the best of local dining, from casual to top-drawer. Expect more reviews after Easter.

Every time I walk into the Shell’s restaurant proper — a small, plain, windowless room, maybe seating 50 at best — I’m struck by two things: the clean ocean fragrance of ecstatically fresh oysters, and the excellent service. I always feel welcome and I never feel neglected or rushed, whether it’s me and two guys at the oyster bar on a quiet rainy afternoon, or it’s lunchtime on game day, and half of Tallahassee is packed in the Shell with their eyes glued to the two TV sets always set to sports channels.

Eating our local fish and produce makes better sense environmentally than eating food trucked around the country, and when I dine at the Shell, I’m supporting everyone involved in our local food chain, from the people who pull the fish from the water to the shuckers at the Shell, who can open several thousand oysters per week. I also appreciate knowing where my food came from, and I enjoy the historical continuity of dining in a local institution that has been serving food for over sixty years.

But I particularly adore dining at the Shell because the food is so exquisitely fresh — not “fresh” the way a bag of lettuce from Publix is fresh, but really, truly fresh, as in caught no later than yesterday.

Oyster on SaltineI enjoy their oysters fried, either as a lunch special with hush puppies, beverage, and two sides ($6.75) or in an “oyster burger” sandwich ($4.75, or $6.25 with fries). Their batter recipe produces a fluffy, crispy fried oyster that floats into the mouth (I tried to get their recipe, but they just smiled at me). I have friends who prefer their oysters “nuked” (microwaved), a style I’m not accustomed to; nuked oysters taste a little mealy to me. But I crave their oysters raw and just-shucked ($6.50 a dozen), especially wolfed down Southern-style on saltine crackers so that each bite contrasts the flaky crispness of a cracker and the plump, cold flesh of an oyster.

The Shell also serves grouper, which dipped in their super-secret fry-batter comes out moist and flavorful, its steam rising out of its delicate crispy battered surface, as well as shrimp, scallops, crab claws, and on occasion, crab cakes. (Sorry, I’m a crab snob: only Dungeness for this gal.) I’ve had the shrimp steamed in garlic butter, which was decent enough, and the shrimp is delicious fried — but honestly, I go there for the oysters.

If you’re new to town or just visiting, all of our local fish is wonderful, but I have eaten oysters in a dozen states and several countries, and I can attest we have some of the finest oysters in the world — sweet and crisp, with a mellow flavor note — courtesy of the perfect mix of fresh and salt water that forms our beloved (and beleaguered) Apalachicola Bay.

With one exception, side dishes at the Shell are not memorable. The fries are serviceable. The coleslaw is crunchy and without too much mayonnaise, but lacks spark (I suppose, having said that, it’s contradictory to point out that the portions are very small.) The cheese grits are forgettable. I don’t know why I keep ordering the hush puppies — they’re always soggy with oil, and cold — though here’s my theory for why they’re bad: the cooking oil is kept at just the right temperature for frying fish, which is lower than what’s optimum for frying spoonfuls of cornbread.

But the onion rings — $3.25 for a basket large enough to share with several people — are numinous: crisp, light, melting, almost greaseless. The onions have just a tiny bit of snap, yet are slightly softened and sweetened by their brief time in the fryer. These onion rings are so good, I could be buried with a basket of them in my arms.

Because I’m a little shy in restaurants, I’ve never sat at the Shell’s counter and dined on oysters the way some do, eating them off a tray as fast as the shuckers can shuck them. Not only does that look fun, but it gets around my one concern about the Shell: many meals are served on disposable polystyrene dishes, accompanied by plastic packets of cutlery and napkins. If I had one wish for the Shell, it would be that it reduce the semi-permanent waste it is contributing to our landfill. We don’t need Spode china and linen napkins; trays and lined baskets would work for most meals (and in fact some dishes already use baskets and liners). The Shell is very green already, simply by virtue of serving local fish, and this would take its environmentalism to another level.

Beverages are simple — tea, soda, coffee, and bottled water — but you may BYOB, which for some means Bring Your Own Budweiser and for others means bringing a nice bottle of wine. That’s part of the charm of the Shell: this is a local joint in the best sense of the word, a place where you can rub shoulders with legislators, state wonks, professors, students, folks from local businesses, moms, dads, and their kids, and average Janes like me, all joined together in our common enjoyment of local fish, prepared well and served with real heart. In Tallahassee, where a new chain restaurant pops up every week, serving food trucked in from who-knows-where, we’re lucky to have institutions such as the Shell, and it’s up to us to make sure they survive.

The Shell is cash-only. They accept take-out phone orders and also sell shucked oysters from the pint all the way up to full bags (about 18 dozen oysters). I recently bought a pint to make chowder ($12.00), and the oysters were impeccable (see recipe below). Catering is available.

The Shell Oyster Bar, 114 East Oakland Ave (between Munroe and Adams), 850-224-9919
Monday through Thursday 11-6, Friday 11-7, Saturday 11-6 (closed Sunday)

Type of establishment: down-home oyster bar
Signature dish: raw oysters
Noise level: variable
Dress: just wear something
Cost: $
Notes: cash only; BYOB
Chance I’d eat here again: 100%

Deep Winter Oyster Chowder

Sometimes I like a thin, uncomplicated chowder: not much more than good rich milk and barely-heated oysters. Other times I want something more involved and rib-sticking. Living near the Gulf, the trick is to never outshine the star of the show: the oyster. We’re also lucky to have local dairies and farms. If I worked on it, the wine and the pepper would be the only imports.

3 slices bacon (Niman Ranch is good)
1 tablespoon flour
2 cups chopped leeks, white and pale green part only
1 white or baking potato, approximately 10 ounces
1 8 ounce bottle clam juice, or substitute water
1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme (substitute a pinch dry thyme if necessary)
1 pint half-and-half, ½ cup set aside (I like Gustafson’s, available at many local markets)
½ cup good dry white wine, such as a sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio
1 pint Shell Oyster Bar oysters, with oyster liquor
Salt and pepper

Dice the bacon and render in a large saucepan while you peel the potato and chop it into ¼” dice. (You can leave a little peel on.)When the bacon has browned, scoop it out and reserve.

Sautee the chopped leeks in the bacon fat until wilted, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook for half a minute, then slowly stir in the clam juice and one and a half cups of the half-and-half. Add the diced potato and the thyme.

If no one is looking, take a long drink of the oyster liquor — it’s delicious. Otherwise, pour all of the oyster liquor into the chowder and then stir in the wine.

Simmer the chowder for about ten minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Stir now and then so the chowder doesn’t burn and so the surface doesn’t develop a skin. If the chowder gets too thick, add a little half and half and water. Stir in the oysters and cook three minutes more, until the oysters have heated through. While the oysters are heating, taste the broth and add salt if necessary.

Grind a little black pepper in the chowder right before or right after serving. Serve in wide bowls with crusty bread, and some hot sauce on the side for those who enjoy a splash of it in their chowder.

Makes two very hearty main-dish portions. (Leave out the potato, and you have four good first-course servings, or with a side or two, a nice lunch for four.)

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