"American oysters differ as much as American people," author M.F.K. Fisher famously wrote in Consider the Oyster, her love letter to the bivalve mollusks. That sentiment is the driving force behind Seaworthy, a new restaurant with a maritime attitude featuring oysters from the East, West and Gulf coasts, tucked inside a historic townhouse sidling the Ace Hotel.
Exploring the delicate nuances of oysters here is a delight, but a costly one (most oysters are $3 apiece, though prices sometimes are reduced during happy hour). Each oyster is distinct, from the shape and coloring of its shell to its tiny pale body, full of flavor and liquor. There are the fluted shells of Fanny Bay oysters, plucked from the pristine and chilly waters of British Columbia's Baynes Sound. Hammersley Inlet oysters feature a strong essence of cucumber and travel all the way from South Puget Sound. And the Beausoleil oysters from Miramichi Bay in New Brunswick, Canada, are petite yet plump, with a slight buttery taste and just a hint of brine.
Oysters hailing from the Gulf South, on the other hand, are milder in flavor: a little sweet and often creamy, carrying a touch of seawater but never enough to be called truly briny. Though they have a long history devoid of superlatives, that's changed with the emergence of off-bottom cultivation techniques in the Gulf, where oysters are suspended in floating cages, as opposed to traditional bottom-harvesting methods.
Seaworthy's selection of Gulf oysters is on constant rotation. A recent selection read like a road map of the Gulf South: creamy Bama Beauties came from Sandy Bay, Alabama, slightly salty Bama Bay oysters from neighboring Mobile Bay, and milder tasting Champagne Bay and Area 3 oysters (taken from the Chandeleur Sound) represented Louisiana. There is nary a saltine in sight, but the house-made oyster crackers pack a buttery, salty crunch.
Though oysters are the focus, chef Daniel Causgrove's menu includes several excellent fish and seafood dishes. A whole-roasted speckled trout arrives with crisped skin, drizzled in an emerald chimichurri and draped over soft potatoes. Both that dish and the butter-poached sheepshead are prime choices, but the latter is especially decadent and comes swimming in a chili-spiked nantua sauce, a French-inspired cream medley flavored with crawfish tails.
Brandade, a creamy Provencal fish dish that traditionally employs salt cod, swaps in smoked sturgeon, which lends the whipped spread a slight smoky touch, while a garnish of compressed cucumbers adds crunch. A tiny mountain of blue crab arrives topping toasts slathered with Creole-spiced aioli; cherry tomatoes add a burst of sweetness and acidity, while the flavors of tarragon and basil tie together the dainty starter.
Some aspects come off as precious, such as glass salt shakers serving as mignonette dispensers. The lobster roll is a nice take on the East Coast staple with fennel, lemon and pickled cucumbers; the size, however, is not appropriate for the $27 price tag.
For culinary landlubbers, there's a brisket and chuck burger, earthy andouille dirty rice stuffing and a pork belly starter in which glazed hunks of the belly are coupled with dollops of fresh ricotta cheese and crispy Granny Smith apples.
There's a masculine, seaman's lodge aesthetic to the restaurant, which is striking, featuring Prussian blue accents, dark wood and the bright glimmer of marble and oysters. Though the multi-level space is beautiful throughout, the best spot in the house is at the downstairs bar, where oysters are displayed from hanging wire baskets and nestled on a gleaming bed of ice. Here, one can get closest to the shuckers who engage in friendly banter and the oysters themselves — the source, and the very heartbeat of this place.