Oyster Bah Is Serving Up Perfect Seafood In Lincoln Park
By Anthony Todd in Food on Jan 21, 2016 4:30PM
Oysters at Oyster Bah. Photo by Kailley Lindman.
While 2015 was officially the year of beef, a quiet mini-trend emerged at the end of the year. Within weeks of each other, two new oyster-focused seafood spots opened: Oyster Bah and Cold Storage. Oyster Bah comes from Lettuce Entertain You and the folks behind Shaw's, and opened the second week of December. It's already darn near perfect.
First off, let me get out this disclaimer: I absolutely, positively love Shaw's. I know it's not trendy for a food geek to admit, in 2016, that one of his five favorite restaurants in the city is a 31-year-old oyster bar that does a gazillion dollars of business each year and was created by a giant restaurant group. But it's true. I love the atmosphere, the oysters, the wedge salads, the lobster rolls and the signs covered in oyster-related quotes that hang on the walls.
The interior of Oyster Bah. Photo by Kailley Lindman.
Here's the problem with that love: it made me expect Oyster Bah to be a twin to Shaw's, just slightly smaller and moved to Lincoln Park. It's not at all. While, inevitably, some of the menu is similar (there are only so many ways to present oysters on the half shell without getting into some gastronomical gymnastics best left untried), Oyster Bah is a different animal. It feels less like an antique, time-worn oyster bar and more like a New England seafood shack, the sort of place you'd stumble into at 4:00 in the afternoon while traveling through a half-empty, economically depressed fishing village. Lest you think that's an insult, it's not—the space is totally charming. The chairs don't match, the walls are covered with worn wood, and there's just enough nautical bric-a-brac on the walls to get the point across without making you feel like you're inside some mall restaurant.
The name, however, is undeniably silly. I can barely bring myself to say it with a straight face—and apparently, neither can the servers, since they universally greeted us with "Welcome to Oyster." Which, admittedly, sounds pretentious and a bit odd (are we inside an oyster?) but probably less silly than forcing them to all fake Boston accents.
The menu is straightforward (for once, a menu that does not require a server to engage in a 15-minute monologue, though they tried anyway), and features a large section of raw dishes, small plates and shellfish, a few sandwiches and a big list of straightforward fish preparations.
Shrimp cocktail. Photo by Kailley Lindman.
I started, of course, with oysters, expecting the usual Shaw's quality but no real surprises. But they got me! First, they serve clams on the half shell as well as oysters, which is rare in Chicag and makes me giddily happy. The tiny, sweet, slightly funky Little Neck clams ($11 a half dozen) disappear in half a bite, accompanied by a spicy Tabasco ice standing in for mignonette. Oyster Bah's ice game is on point - instead of a standard vinegar sauce, they've got Tabasco ice for the clams and stout ice for the oysters. It tastes like you're washing down the critters with a cold beer, and it's perfect.
Shrimp cocktail ($15) was excellent, and if you're into Old Bay Seasoning, get that version of it—though if you aren't, be careful, because the flavor is nearly overwhelming. Clam chowder ($6) was exactly the clam chowder I've loved for years at Shaw's, and a fresh, tart arugula salad ($8), recommended by the server, was the perfect way to cut the fat.
New England Stuffies. Photo by Kailley Lindman.
Now we come to the best dish of the night, which I've not seen in this city before: the New England Stuffies ($10). These are big, rough quahog clams that are stuffed with an intoxicating mix of clam meat, chorizo, celery and bread. It tastes like your grandma's Thanksgiving stuffing, if your grandma happened to spend her summers below decks on a fishing schooner in the North Sea. It was below zero on the night I visited, and these warmed me right up - I could have eaten a double portion of them, and I hope that they add one to the entree menu.
By the time I'd eaten through the entire top of the menu, I didn't have much stamina left, so I finished with a simple plate of crispy rainbow trout ($25). The delicate, crispy flesh, seasoned with the perfect amount of salt and lemon and topped with brown butter, somehow made me feel better, rather than stuffed. It was also a pleasant reminder that fish doesn't have to be tortured with crazy sauces.
Rainbow Trout. Photo by Kailley Lindman.
The drink program is simple and solid, and includes a good Bloody Mary, a memorable sweet/spicy take on a Dark and Stormy made with rye and maple, and a huge wine by the glass selection. In addition, there's an entire basement bar, the Crab Cellar (which I haven't visited yet), devoted to craft cocktails and a small food menu.
Oyster Bah has a few minor flaws. Their service was a bit confused, and there was more than one loudly dropped dish (but it's early yet). Whoever designed the table layout should be taken out back and smacked, because instead of using rectilinear tables to maximize traffic flow, they purchased round ones and scattered them, seemingly at random, through the small dining room. It was almost impossible to get to and from my seat, and I would have done better to send texts to my server rather than forcing them to stumble to the tableside. But I have faith that they will fix these minor issues. Just bring me more stuffies, and I won't notice anyway.