THE FIRST HUMANS to pry open an oyster must have gazed at its oozy yet firm innards, ogled its brine, and wondered: What is it? The same could be asked thousands of years later by the humans who visit Olympia Oyster Bar.
It's a confounding little place. The proprietors are clearly enthusiastic and skilled with one of the world's most perfect foods, but also haven't quite figured out the formula that will pack its communal tables night after night. Chefs Melissa Meyer and Maylin Chavez are shucking some of the most inventive oyster dishes around. Some are stellar—but not all are pearls.
Portland's already oyster crazy—a dozen Netarts or the like are available on a wide array of menus. It was enough to make the Mercury design four separate oyster crawls last year. It makes sense that Olympia Oyster Bar, which started with pricey pop-ups two years ago, was hotly anticipated.
The brick-and-mortar launched in mid-December and joins a smattering of recent niche openings. It reminds me somewhat of Hamlet and La Moule—although the former has better cocktails and the latter has much heartier food. Which isn't to say there aren't a few good drinks here: The Brown Derby ($10) was a sweet and bitter blend of bourbon, honey, and grapefruit, and a $10 sparkling rosé was great with the raw oysters.
Each raw oyster is fresh and wonderful (six for $15; 12 for $30)—Mayer and Chavez work with a handful of West Coast oyster farms to bring in the best. Boy howdy, they're good. The menu then breaks down into "naked" and "dressed" oysters (all priced four for $12).
A few preparations were infinitely edible, but also managed to lose the delicate oyster under layers of ingredients. The oyster gyoza were a prime example, the cooked oyster giving just a hint of umami but nothing more underneath scallions, ponzu, and green chiles. A deep-fried phyllo-wrapped oyster with serrano jam and a dab of avocado purée was beautiful, but also had little bivalve action.
A "dressed" oyster with fennel, leek, gremolata, and toasted fennel seed, however, was fantastic: The warm ingredients enveloped the sweet oyster like a chowder on the half shell. A chile shoyu with sesame seeds presentation also let the salty flavors shine.
Yet after finishing a $100-plus outing with three friends at Olympia Oyster Bar, I stopped for a slice of pepperoni pizza on the way home. (I'm not alone—the critic who reviewed the place for Willamette Week made himself a sandwich after a $40 solo outing.)
That's my main problem: A feeling of stinginess permeated our visits. Ever-so-tasty Matiz sardines in a tin with crostini ($9) was presented to our table of four with four small slices of toast. We had to flag down a server and ask for more in order to polish off the fish properly—we got one more small slice each. A basket of Grand Central Bakery breads with house-smoked goat butter also provided four slices for $6—a price that's gone up $1 in a month.
The larger dishes we tried were also uniformly impressive, if insubstantially sized. The crevettes ($15) were large Mexican gulf shrimp cooked perfectly with Old Bay spice, a chimichurri, and lime, but when shared it went oh so fast. The mussels ($17) were an homage to Mayer's grandfather's chipachole—a spice-heavy seafood broth with chile and cinnamon—but again, when we split it, we got about three mussels apiece. Having Mayer walk up and tell the table to chug the broth did little to fill us up, but a lot to make us a little weirded out. It just doesn't do well to skimp when your menu's star is generally served as an appetizer.
Don't get me wrong. I'll be back to Olympia Oyster Bar. But as it is now, it will be for an amuse-bouche preceding a night out on Mississippi—a few bites and a drink before heading out for the main course elsewhere.
Tues-Fri 4 pm-10 pm, Sat 11:30 am-10 pm. Takes reservations. "Recess" is 4-6 pm and raw oysters are $12 for a half dozen.
Olympia Oyster Bar
4214 N Mississippi