At the sparkling new Oyster House, Sam Mink revives his family’s legend.
Please believe me when I tell you I’m no lightweight, but halfway into my first mason jar of rummy Oyster House Punch, I was buzzed as a high school junior pounding a 40 before prom. Really, I only had myself to blame; a fellow food writer warned me bartender-about-town Katie Loeb’s high-octane punch was potent. So did the waitress. I didn’t listen.
It’s not that the elixir—a blend of black tea, lemon juice, Gosling’s dark rum, Cognac, apricot brandy and a house-made spiced simple syrup—wasn’t delicious as Loeb’s cocktails usually are. It was simply boozy enough to black out the entire Royal Navy on a transatlantic voyage. But perhaps that’s a self-serving comparison, as Philadelphia Fish House Punch, the ancestor of this concoction, was invented in 1848 “to please the ladies’ palate but get them livelier than is their usual wont,” in the words of its creator Shippen Willing.
Plink, plonk. There fell my testicles to the floor as I sipped the 19th-century roofie. Thank the fertility gods I was already at a bar surrounded by oysters. Quivering, ripe, juicy oysters. If there was ever a place I could get back my mojo it was here at Oyster House, Sam Mink’s chic revival of the Sansom Street classic his father, David, established in 1976.
Through a year of extensive renovations, Mink has transformed an unwelcoming wood-paneled fish house into a crisp, sparkling haven furnished with whitewashed exposed brickwalls, ceilings for days and two bars (raw and cocktail) topped in reclaimed marble pavers from Independence Mall.
Oyster House opened in June, and by Mink’s estimation shucks 4,000 oysters a week. I can believe it; business was gangbusters the happy hour that Delaware Bays as dim and awkwardly muscular as the henchman in a Disney fairy tale were on buck-a-shuck special.
The lackluster species is nature’s, not Oyster House’s, fault—though the shards of shell in two of two oysters fall squarely on the shucking. But don’t let that dissuade you. A little shrapnel is a fair price to pay for the other, fine, familiar specimens like Choptank Sweet and Wellfleet, Pemaquid and Chincoteague. Hailing from Fishers Island Sound off the Connecticut coast, half a dozen Mystic oysters chased away the Delaware Bay blues. I hate to hate on my half-shelled homeboys, but the Mystics were magic, as sweet and salty as a chocolate-covered pretzel, as crisp and clear as a fork chiming a Champagne glass.
With oysters as good as these, any ostentation further than classic mignonette would be like covering a grass-fed filet mignon in Heinz 57. Or so you’d think. It’s ironic that chef Greg Ling, last of sushi den Raw, showed real finesse with the cooked oyster dishes. Let the purists scoff; you and I will be tossing back the roasted ones Español style, having the last laugh through mouthfuls of Delaware Bays electrified by fiery, finely diced, house-made chorizo and cilantro-lime butter. Here was the injection the Delawareans needed, the sausage grease and melted butter enrobing each one in a crimson aurora of liquid fat (in a good way) balanced by the citrus and herb.
Southern-fried, a Virginia select oyster turned up atop the dauntingly big Oyster House burger. I love the idea, the fried mollusk like a warm pat of butter atop the juicy dry-aged prime patty with blue cheese and caramelized onions—but the oyster I received was incredibly fishy, with the aroma of the beach when clumps of baby mussels wash up on the shore and bake to death in the sun.
Better to go with the lobster roll, which Mink grew up eating (along with the creamy soft-shell steam clams, rarely seen in Philly but available—and succulent—at Oyster House) during summers in Maine. The Oyster House recipe (sweet lobster, mayo, chopped celery, lemon juice, salt and pepper) is classic, but the roll is not. After experimenting for weeks, Mink and Ling decided on the pillowy Martin’s potato roll instead of the top-split New England-style bun. Buttered, toasted and overstuffed with lobster—it’d better be for $26—this was a break with tradition I approve of.
And really, so is Oyster House in general. By departing from the menu and design mores of the old-fashioned American fish house, Mink’s created an oyster bar for our generation. About time. ■
Where’s a good honest Joe gonna get his hands on a cheap substitute for penis pills? Oyster buck-a-shucks baby!
PW's Taste of Philly 2014