When an oyster is perfectly shucked—that is, when its shucker is dexterous with his knife and neatly separates the creature’s shell without scrambling its stomach, feathery gills, or invisibly beating heart, or chipping off any nacreous shrapnel into its delicate anatomy—and then is gently laid on a bed of crushed ice without losing a drop of its precious liquor, it is still alive. I can’t think of very many animals you can eat live without getting arrested. Let’s be thankful they can’t scream.
The oysters I ate at Bow & Stern—a couple dozen on a couple occasions, flown in from waters on both coasts—were in the prime of life. Among them were briny, plump mollusks from Massachusetts and sweet brittle-shelled ones from Washington; others from the Pacific Northwest, with deep cups, ruffled edges, and the aftertaste of honeydew; and wild-grown specimens from Nova Scotia, so salty and metallic they tasted like cold blood. They didn’t scream when I slurped them down, but they practically sang.
Bow & Stern, in the former public library that used to be home to Branch 27, currently features eight bivalves of such distinct personality that it would be a crime to put them in the hands of an unskilled opener—especially since the raw bar is positioned at the front of the bar proper, near the entrance and in full view of expectant oyster aficionados. I’m not sure who chef Brian Greene found to do that, but it’s a much more compassionate operation than the one I encountered nearly a year and a half ago at Wicker Park’s Savoy, the previous restaurant Greene worked in, where cooks were murdering the poor things before they’d even been ordered.
Apart from that, Greene’s new post, which sports two rooms hung with vaguely nautical bricolage, is very similar to his old one. There’s a preponderance of seafood appetizers and entrees, some surf-and-turf options, a handful of salads, and a trio of dishes derived from land-dwelling animals. Curiously, in nearly every category there’s at least one dish that is, if not a direct copy from the menu Greene presented at the Savoy, then pretty close. There’s a very good thinly shaved pastrami-cured salmon with pumpernickel toast and house pickles that will be recognized by anyone who’s eaten the Savoy’s gravlax with rye waffles and pickles. And I knew there was something familiar about Bow & Stern’s grilled romaine salad with candied hazelnuts and blue cheese, even though the smoked-tomato vinaigrette it shares with the one at the Savoy was nearly undetectable.
It was deja vu again with a formidable slab of tough, undercooked pork belly positioned like an immovable monument between two mismatched seared scallops, the entire dish oversweetened with a load of cherry-quince mojo and date gastrique. Executions like that had me believing that the kitchen should stick to a strict seafood diet, but when a whole deep-fried red snapper (another carryover from the Savoy) came to the table clad in a cold, clammy batter, I wondered if I could carbon-date it to figure out how long it sat on the pass before a runner arrived to dispatch it.
Communication between the front and the back of the house seems strained. A server at one point muttered sarcastically about the timing of a winter salad—squash, radish beans, and carrots dressed in a brown-butter vinaigrette and topped with a snow cap of ricotta—delivered seconds before we got our mouths around the first bites of our appetizers. This same server disappeared for nearly 25 minutes after desserts were set down, something I wouldn’t mention if it hadn’t happened on a previous visit, with a different server. Executional errors are marring what otherwise would be enjoyable food.
Other dishes are just ill conceived from the start, such as a large bowl of cioppino crowded with mussels, scallops, prawns, and clams in a viscid pureed “broth” as thick as tomato sauce, but bearing none of the saffron or anise notes associated with this classic dish. A baked oyster offering—likely there for folks squeamish about eating the mollusks raw—had them bathing in “Mexican chorizo butter” with chunks of hard Spanish chorizo, a salty, porky brew that obliterated any of the oysters’ individuality.
There are good dishes to be had here and there—the salads, the cured salmon, a trashy, crispy, candied dish of deep-fried Laughing Bird shrimp that wouldn’t be out of place in your favorite Chinese take-out joint. And, surprisingly, there are some winning desserts, such as a dense, powerfully citric key lime pie and a molten dulce de leche cake, oozing with caramel alongside an almost savory scoop of sour-cream ice cream.
So at Bow & Stern it’s mostly about the raw oysters—and the right wines, red and white, to drink with them, like a low-tannin California cab or a light Rhone that can both straddle surf and turf adeptly. I’m glad the oysters are treated better here than they were at the Savoy, which means I’ll be returning to slurp down some live ones. It’s just too bad the rest of the animals aren’t treated as humanely.