The twentieth-century food writer M.F.K. Fisher had her first oyster at a boarding school Christmas party. In her book The Gastronomical Me, Fisher remembers swallowing the mollusk with adolescent daring before sweeping out to dance. “Oysters are simply marvelous!” she thinks giddily to herself. “More, more!”
I was thinking of this indulgent attitude when I entered the Chicago Oyster House in the South Loop for the second time, having visited after its opening in May. The words “The world is your oyster, but oysters are our world,” are printed on one of the walls of the restaurant, and as if to emphasize this point the bar is backed by a floor-to-ceiling map of the world. The main dining room is all tablecloths and glassware, with crisp minimalist lines that echo the restaurant’s stylized oyster logo. Recessed lights and lounge music add to the atmosphere of laid-back elegance.Once seated, it took my friends and I a while to decide what we wanted to eat. The menu is replete with all manner of seafood, but the disjointedness of the offerings made it difficult for us to find our bearings. Sushi rolls sat incongruously on the menu next to clam chowder and crab legs, and the conceptual connection between them seemed tenuous.Owner Rick Cheng made the link between the items clear when he explained to me that the restaurant’s previous incarnation was Triad Sushi Lounge, a South Loop staple for nine years. He decided to pursue a new concept after noticing that, though Chicago has a plethora of sushi restaurants, it lacks “a true oyster house.” To ease this transition for Triad’s regulars, Chicago Oyster House has preserved Triad’s sushi bar.
Cheng’s decision to switch to oysters was one born of savvy attention to the changing tastes of Chicagoans. Having attended the Guinness Oyster Festival for the last five years, he noted that the festival has consistently sold out of tickets. “Best yet,” Cheng told me, “the festival sells out oysters by 6pm, with several hours of festivities to go.” True to its name, his restaurant offers a rotating selection from over sixty varieties of oysters, sourcing them from both coasts.
We decided to start with a slew of oysters and a simple bowl of clam chowder. The oysters arrived first, nestled in their shells in a tray of ice and served with lemon, champagne vinaigrette, and ketchup. Shortly after, the clam chowder arrived with three clams, still in their shells, the meat waiting inside like a small treasure. The soup was thick, much heartier than the watery soup I had tried a few months before.
On my first visit, most of the dishes I’d tasted were delicate and light, with garnishes highlighting the subtle flavors of the seafood itself. Apparently, this approach has since been discarded. The soft-shell crab we ordered was served deep-fried, as was the perplexing Fire Cracker Tuna, supposedly a sushi dish. The tuna within the rolls had been cooked through, lending it the disarming texture of red meat. The grilled scallops, too, were draped with a coat of garlic soy butter sauce, which turned out to be both heavy and incredibly salty, though the accompanying lemon slice helped to cut some of the punch.
We paid homage to Triad Sushi with an order of Chicago rolls, a concoction of salmon, tuna, yellowtail, cucumber, and avocado, drizzled over with spicy mayo. The sushi was decent but forgettable, almost an afterthought on the menu. This feeling was reinforced in an ungraceful moment when I had to exchange the knife and oyster fork I’d been using for wooden chopsticks.
But the oyster house’s oysters, unsurprisingly, still shone the brightest. The Blue Points were big and briny, while the Malaspinas came in dark knobbly shells, huge and succulent. Best were the Virginia-sourced Rappahannocks, which left a sweet, warm aftertaste. The Stingrays, cool and delicate, were less flavorful.
The service shone as well. Our waiter deftly guided us through the menu, and she brought us our dishes within minutes of our ordering them.
Later in her book, Fisher writes about becoming sickened by the shallow indulgence of the Christmas party, hoping never to see an oyster again. Though my own return visit to Chicago Oyster House hadn’t quite lived up to my expectations, my reaction wasn’t quite so severe. We had so enjoyed the oysters we’d had at the beginning of our meal that we ordered another round to finish off the night. More, more!
Chicago Oyster House, 1933 S. Indiana Ave. (312)225-8833. chicagooysterhouse.com