Heavenly Half-Shells 

Upscale Oysters Find a Home on Alberta

Peter Hochman grew up in Chesapeake Bay, where oysters cluster like groupies at a Mötley Crüe concert. Eventually, Hochman migrated west, kicking around the culinary scene in San Francisco before moving to Portland six years ago, where he's put his keen understanding of restaurants and oysters to good use: the newly opened Alberta Street Oyster Bar and Grill.

Adjacent to Bernie's, the long-running southern bistro, the Oyster Bar doesn't beat around the bush. There are oysters, and a lot of them. Every night, Hochman has at least a half-dozen different kinds, ranging from starter oysters to more daunting and dynamic mollusks. After one trip to the Oyster Bar, even the most dimwitted should be semiliterate with oysters. Each oyster on the menu picks up the flavor and character of its respective home bay, river, or ocean. The Fanny Bay (British Columbia) has a refined, smooth, and creamy taste, while the oysters from Pickering Pass (Puget Sound) are sultry and tart. My favorites are the ones from Chef's Creek, which are sweet and briny. My date liked the full taste of the Willapa Bay variety (Southwest Washington)—a large, succulent oyster that is not for the faint of heart.

But it's not all oysters at the Oyster Bar. There's an impressive menu beyond the half-shell delicacies, and everything is so authentic and fresh the place smells like a fishmonger convention. Which, in this instance, is a compliment, despite being an odd scent for a posh restaurant.

By far the best main dish we tried was the trout stuffed with crab (wrapped in pancetta). It was remarkably hearty and plump, but not heavy. The monkfish with a kumquat sauce and oyster mushrooms was also impressively sublime, if a touch too salty. On a second trip, I strayed into more traditional, land-based dishes. The short ribs melted right off the bone and my friend tried the burger smothered with blue cheese, which she declared one of the best in town.

Oddly, chef Eric Bechard seems to do best with more complicated and nuanced dishes, rather than the simple straightforward items. On the menu, the roasted beets promised a deep, smoky, rich flavor, but instead were delivered as flat, almost tasteless red pucks. The rabbit and fingerling potato appetizer was not nearly as succulent as it sounded, arriving as plain white meat with the taste mostly cooked out. The mussels in a spicy Thai sauce, however, were wonderfully plump with just a perfect hint of muskiness.

The Alberta Street Oyster Bar and Grill has replaced the short-lived and ill-fated sushi bar, Jellyfish. Our host assured us that they had exorcised the place from the bad mojo left over from that underwhelming restaurant, but unfortunately the new place has some of the same strikes against it—notably, it is excessively spendy. Granted, my date and I drank a lot, and ate A LOT of oysters, but our bill topped $150. A second more modest trip back to the restaurant still clocked in at $80.

The food at the Oyster Bar lives up to the cost. But it remains to be seen if Alberta Street can sustain more than middle-range priced restaurants, and the success of this new addition will determine just how much this neighborhood has changed.

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