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The Chicagoist Oyster Throwdown Series: Brown Line Edition

By Roger Kamholz in Food on May 27, 2011 6:20PM

Is it just us, or is Chicago suddenly spoiled with oysters? A host of new dining spots, plus several old standbys, are sourcing and serving up impressive oyster programs for a city so far from seawater. Over the weeks ahead, the Chicagoist Foodies (gastropodistas?) will be getting to the bottom of this newfound bounty of bivalves with what we're calling our Oyster Throwdown Series - head-to-head reviews of oyster bars all over the city.

First up, two Brown Line-hugging newcomers to the scene, Fish Bar in Lakeview versus GT Fish and Oyster in River North. On a recent evening, Minna, Caitlin and Roger rode the rails to try them side-by-side. Here's what they had to say (ratings are out of a possible 5 +'s):

Oyster Selection (variety of offerings)

MINNA: Fish Bar + | GT Fish and Oyster ++++
Without a doubt, GT Fish and Oyster had the best selection and variety of oysters available. With 6 oyster varieties, over Fish Bar's 2 choices, GT has a chance to showcase more types of oysters including a range of options from coast to coast. Fish Bar does offer an interesting variety, although GT holds one over them; GT makes their own ponzu mignonette (that onion/oil mix to top your oyster with), their own cocktail sauce AND their own hot sauces!

ROGER: Fish Bar ++ | GT Fish and Oyster ++++
I must say I felt let down seeing only two oyster varieties on Fish Bar's menu (Fanny Bays, from the West Coast, and Wellfleets, from Cape Cod) the evening we dined there. Given the crowds it gets, I imagine FB could stock more and still run through everything. Nevertheless, the Fannys and Wellfleets were great, thoughtful choices - both eschewed the expected, representative flavors of their provenance (i.e., East Coast salty, West sweet). On the nose, they had a slight lingering fishiness, but it had no effect on taste. Between the two, the Fannys were far better - richer, rounder and brinier.

GT offered six oyster varieties, split evenly between East and West coasters, which is both generous and diverse - good things for an ambitious oyster program. Trying them all in the server-recommended progression, though, seemed to lack a deliberate build-up in terms of flavor. The Kusshis we started with were inspired, as were the Blue Points we ended with; by contrast, a couple in between were duds - bland and listless. Knowing what chef Giuseppe Tentori can do, I suppose I expected to be taken on a journey. No matter - when I go again, and I will, I'll stick to the two I mentioned and have a phenomenal meal.

CAITLIN: Fish Bar +++ | GT Fish and Oyster ++
Sometimes less is more. For the oyster novice like me, you might want simplicity in your decision-making. The myriad of choices at GT Fish and Oyster made me feel like I was in deep water without a life jacket. I liked the simplicity of the two choices at Fish Bar; one east coast choice and one west coast choice. KISS (keep it simple, stupid). Fish Bar is my winner.

Oyster Quality and Taste

MINNA: Fish Bar +++ | GT Fish and Oyster ++++
What the shuck?! Fish bar left remnants of not just briny taste, but a scattering of shell bits...not an appealing factor when you're looking to take down slurping slippery oysters in one swift swoop. Each slurp was followed by attempts to try to indiscreetly pick shell bits from my mouth, hoping my fellow Chicagoist foodies wouldn't notice my bad table manners...awkward. Maybe this left a bad taste in my mouth (pun intended), because again I'm choosing GT over Fish Bar, who seemingly had about three expert shuckers standing stationed above the shells.

Both GT and Fish Bar had a great selection of fresh varietals. Neither smelled of seafood stench when they came to our table, and each bite had an appropriate amount of zesty brine. For a real treat, take along Chicagoist Cocktail expert Roger who can tell a great story about the lazy, warm weather oysters who don't grow stronger, thicker shells.

ROGER: Fish Bar +++ | GT Fish and Oyster +++++
For me, an oyster's flavor, texture and juice are closely followed in importance by its presentation. How well was it shucked? How much brine was preserved? In all respects, GT prevailed. Next to no shell bits, unlike at Fish Bar, where I had to pull flecks of shell from my mouth on two occasions. But FB was redeemed by taste: the Fanny Bays were delightful, fresh and well-balanced. And while a couple of GT oysters were forgettable, the Kusshis and Blue Points were superlative enough to overshadow them.

CAITLIN: Fish Bar +++ | GT Fish and Oyster +++
It's a tie. They all tasted like oysters to me. When are we going out for burgers?

Overall Restaurant Experience and Atmosphere

MINNA: Fish Bar ++++ | GT Fish and Oyster ++
Despite my glowing reviews of GT above, my vote for this one is Fish Bar. GT's interior seems appropriate for those seeking an upscale experience, but oysters in my mind taste better in the more unpretentious atmosphere of Fish Bar, with the casual waitstaff, wood paneling, and tacky blue fish and canoe ornamenting the walls. It's like the oyster shack cleaned itself up just a bit for the new urban setting.

ROGER: Fish Bar +++ | GT Fish and Oyster +++
I'm calling this a tie. Each is going for a very different atmosphere, and each is pretty successful. I felt equally "at home" in both the Cape Cod fish shack-esque Fish Bar and the Cape Cod yacht club-esque GT. (I guess I just like Cape Cod.) GT's d├ęcor is perhaps striving a little to hard to be "authentic," whereas Fish Bar, while small, crowded and cramped, was tracking perfectly with my vision of a cheeky, salty oceanside seafood bar.

Putting on my drinking hat for a moment, I was impressed by my cocktails at both restaurants. Which I fully expected from GT (BOKA mixologist Ben Schiller set the menu) but was surprised to find at FB. My grapefruit-laced Negroni Baloney was fresh, brightly acidic and just hinting at bitter - a nice complement to a plate of slurpers.

CAITLIN: Fish Bar ++++ | GT Fish and Oyster ++
Fish Bar cleans this category up. It's small, it's fun, the kitsch isn't over the top, and the bar setup is cool - waitresses can come right up to your table along the bar. The staff did a good job of explaining the oysters in plain English, and gave us a good idea of what to expect from the taste of each choice. The drinks are good too - we tried the Tea, the Punch, and the Negroni Baloney. All fun, and all strong. We saw a kiddo eating tater tots out of a paper cone (lucky kid). I tried to snag some while he wasn't looking, but Minna stopped me. GT was a little too cool for school, maybe due to its River North location. Too dark, too hip, too see-and-be-seen. I would definitely rather spend an evening at Fish Bar.

Individual Winners

MINNA: While the atmosphere at Fish bar was more cheerful and charming, GT Fish and Oyster won me over with their great service and wider variety. Not to mention, while Fish Bar totes some interesting cocktails, the expansive wine list at GT Fish and Oyster adds and additional dimension to oyster tasting.

As for those oysters, although it's fun to say "Tatamagouche," the almost as fun to say "Kusshi" at GT takes the prize in my book for the best oyster of the competition. With such a distinct refreshing flavor and texture, it was hard to appreciate the other oyster varieties after having tasted the Kusshi. The refreshing taste of the Kusshi combined the salty brine with a smooth buttery flavor. In addition to an appropriate mix of flavor, the Kusshi oyster had two different textures with a more meaty bite adding to the expected gooey texture.

ROGER: If they're good, I'll eat oysters in a tool shed. I just love 'em. So, I'm going to cast my vote for GT because of its superior selection, presentation and quality. The clientele and atmosphere may not be my favorite, but I'll just block that out using my new mantra: "Kusshi, Kusshi, Kusshi..."

CAITLIN: Fish Bar. It's more relaxed, the drinks are creative, the space is creative, the oysters are tasty, and the people watching is more interesting (unless you like watching homogenous late 20- early 30-somethings sip glasses of white wine. Which I heard Roger does. Ohh, Burn!)

Overall Winner

Critic's Picks: GT Fish and Oyster, by two votes to one.
Points: GT Fish and Oyster, with 29 out of 45 possible points - Fishbar got 26

Any places we should definitely try? Leave them in the comments or email us.

Fish Bar is located at 2958 North Sheffield Avenue. GT Fish and Oyster is located at 531 North Wells Street.