• Mike Sula
  • There’s a clam in there, Pearl Tavern.

Over the weekend I took a chance on a raw Penn Cove oyster on the half shell from the gigantic new Mariano’s in Ravenswood. You could argue that anyone who eats a raw oyster in a supermarket gets exactly what he deserves, but as far as I can tell this is the only location in the 28-store chain that features a raw bar. I figured if chain supermarket oysters were becoming the new chain supermarket sushi,* it was my professional duty to try at least one bivalve. I love big, plump, deep-shelled, melony-tasting west-coast mollusks like Penn Coves—when they’re good. When they’re not good, they’re particularly gross, much more so than briny east-coast oysters. This one, mangled by the shucker, was spawny tasting, and the thought of the reproductive issue of louche, randy oysters stayed with me all day. Lesson learned.

But I began to wonder if this signaled a general acceptance of wanton substandard oyster proliferation. Oysters are having a moment. Being among the more sustainably harvested types of seafood, they’re something you don’t have to feel guilty eating, and the recent appearance of several seafood- focused restaurants (with more to come) seems to bode well for good sourcing and skilled presentation—despite their other flaws. That’s certainly the case at Pearl Tavern, a newish Loop oyster bar that sports all the trappings of its ilk: marble bar, brass fixtures, black-finished wood paneling—and a giant flat screen above the bar tuned to financial news channels just to keep you from getting lost in the moment.

The oysters here—one west-coast and one east-coast variety each day—are well shucked; no shrapnel present, plenty of liquid reserved in the shell. They aren’t served with any silly stuff to dump on top, just the basic mignonette, lemon wedges, and cocktail sauce. But you shouldn’t bother with any of those anyway, because you’ll want to be able to pick up the nuances in these fresh, clean critters unadorned.

That’s what makes another signature offering so strange—razor clams. They’re some of the smallest I’ve ever come across; fragile shells cradling a delicate, ivory noodle of clamflesh that’s overwhelmed by julienned fennel, big briny dollops of trout roe, and a spritz of absinthe. At $12 for four, these make no sense.

Otherwise Pearl Tavern has a small but varied menu of other familiar seafood preps: ceviche, scallops on the half shell, mussels, peel-and-eat shrimp, lobster rolls, fish tacos, and a Wagyu burger for the pescaphobe in your group. I recently took a shot on the po’boy of the day, a spicy cornmeal-crusted soft-shell crab on a chewy, stale bun that couldn’t be more incorrect if it were Wonder Bread ($15). A seared swordfish steak with a sweet caponata made much more sense for $12.

But overall, like Bow & Stern, Pearl Tavern is all about the bivalves (except the razor clams), and as it stands the best place to eat oysters is still an oyster bar.

Pearl Tavern, 180 N. Wacker, 312-629-1030, pearltavern.com

*This store has a sushi bar too, and a surprisingly inoffensive barbecue counter. More on that later.