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Review: The Half Shell 

Sarah Baird on an oyster bar on Esplanade Ridge

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As temperatures drop, many diners look for a good spot to grab a dozen oysters. Those who love watching shuckers at work but wince at the thought of braving the crowds at well-known oyster bars might find the under-the-radar answer to their prayers at The Half Shell.

  Located in a building set back from the bustle of Esplanade Avenue, The Half Shell Oyster Bar & Grill feels almost like a suburban enclave on approach, with ample parking and the kind of nondescript exterior more in line with a strip mall than the mansions lining the street. Don't let the lack of architectural appeal stop you from hightailing it inside, grabbing a table and ordering a half-dozen raw oysters.

  Above all else, Half Shell is an oyster bar and excels at serving plump, briny bivalves that remind us just how decadent the fruits of the sea can taste without much embellishment. A half-dozen raw oysters (a bargain at $7) arrive on a glittery bed of ice and the fat and salty bivalves have a delicate, subtly sweet aftertaste.

  For those who are squeamish about uncooked oysters, Half Shell also offers traditional dishes — baked oysters Rockefeller, char-grilled oysters and the restaurant's own grilled, bacon-wrapped, blue cheese-sprinkled Voodoo oysters, which taste more of salty pork than delicate seafood.

  The menu also features a familiar list of fried seafood platters and entrees, several of which exceed expectations. Fried catfish has a lightly battered, crunchy exterior creating a well-balanced textural complement to the fish. A plate of buttery, peppery barbecue shrimp should arrive with an extra stack of napkins (and an extra loaf of bread) as diners will not want to walk away without sopping up every last bite of the aromatic and biting sauce. Blackened redfish was dense and flavorful, but caked in a fine layer of salt, and the accompanying sauteed squash was oily. The dish needs a defter hand applied on its seasoning and the vegetable needs attention as well.

  Crystal-spiced onion rings are a hidden gem on the menu — gingerly battered, sliced thin and more akin to a web of crispy shoestring potatoes than a stack of deep-fried, bracelet-sized onion hoops. Red onions give a hint of sweetness to the dish and a bit of color through the crumbly, flaky shell of heat-laden batter. If you're with a group, order a large plate to share or risk neighbors' hands wandering onto your plate.

  While Half Shell doesn't sell itself as a spot for sunrise dining, it offers an unexpectedly expansive breakfast menu. The lineup seems hurried in its assembly, but it delivers dinerlike (potentially hangover-curing) fare that would please any lover of griddle-top hot cakes and egg concoctions. One welcome inclusion is the handful of vegan options, including pancakes and savory and sweet vegan-dressed sweet potatoes.

  Service is familial and casual — restaurant regulars are quickly met with handshakes, hugs and back slaps. It's not unusual for the oyster shucker to emerge from behind the bar, carefully carrying a behemoth, single oyster to a table as a lagniappe treat. Oysters are well-loved and treated with the utmost affection at Half Shell, making it worth seeking out for a low-key place to slurp down a dozen.

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