Sunday, August 26, 2012

Happy Hour | Mermaid Oyster Bar

This past weekend, I met up with Amanda for dinner and drinks, which ended up being a grub-heavy happy hour, at Mermaid Oyster Bar in the West Village.

As the third off-shoot of the original Mermaid Inns of the Upper West Side and East Village, the Mermaid Oyster Bar was opened by restauranteurs Danny Abrams and Cindy Smith in the former space of their ill-fated bistro, Smith's, with Chef Laurence Edelman as the head chef. What I didn't know was that Zach Braff also happens to be a part owner of this space as well, as he and Chef Edelman have been old time friends since high school (thanks to Jenny for this little tidbit!). Anyway, what makes this spot different from its preceding sibling restaurants is that it is focused on raw, uncooked items on its bill of fare, including a raw bar featuring sixteen types of oysters, shrimp cocktail, clams, and some crudo. This isn't to say there aren't a number of cooked sea fare available to enjoy -- most of the items are old seafood shack favorites with a little dressing up of gourmet. Currently, Chef Michael Cressotti runs the kitchen in all three of Mermaid's restaurants as head corporate chef.

The space, while intimate and quite romantic, is full of bright, crisply organic colors (whites, chrome, and beige), which is very reminiscent of the beach towns of the East Coast (the Hamptons and Nantucket come to mind).

As I have already mentioned, we arrived right when the happy hour at the Mermaid Oyster Bar just began (5 - 7 PM from Friday through Sunday, 5:30 - 7 PM on all other days), so we knew we should take advantage of the drinks as well as the bargain prices on oysters and small plates.

Look at that wide array of different oysters available at the raw bar! For the most part, the amount from the East and West Coasts are pretty even, too!

Amanda began with a glass of house rosé , which was crisp and refreshing. I had the Princess cocktail (i.e., sparkling rosé wine with St. Germain edelflower liquer, and cava), which was nice and bubbly with a taste of lychee to it -- overall, very much like a fruitless sangria.

To start our evening off right, Amanda and I wanted to sample the chef's choice of oysters, one from each coast, before committing to an entire, iridescent platter over ice. The offering that evening for East Coast was the Beausoleil oyster from New Brunswick, Canada and for West Coast was the Pebble Beach oyster from Hood Canal in Washington state. The East Coast ones are meant to be "petite and delicate with a fruity salinity," while the West Coast ones are meant to be "plump with a briny finish." For the most part, these descriptions were exactly the case, but to our dismay, the East Coast ones were a little too petite for our taste (barely any substance to savor). Fortunately, the West Coast ones were exactly what we were looking for -- plump and rich. They were a bit briny, but nothing a little squeeze of lemon and a generous coat of hogwash can't cure. We ordered sixteen more of these (eight per person), slurping each and every one of them quite contently.

Next up, we each tried a mini fish taco with blackened tilapia, avocado, and smoked jalapeño. This makes for a really nice bar bite -- especially if you're just there for happy hour drinks. The tilapia was nicely charred with a soft, flaky center and went really well with the crisp soft taco shell and the dollop of guacamole. Not at all heavy in that they were light enough so you could enjoy some other fare as well.

We also had an order of fried clam strips with chipotle tartar sauce. Really great, as it used the same kind of batter as most fried calamari dishes do. The chipotle tartar sauce had a really interesting smokiness to it, which added another dimension to what would have been just plain tartar sauce. Great to munch on for the table!

We also each got a grilled shrimp and avocado slider (sorry for the blurry shot!) with a shisito pepper. Chef Cressotti did everything right here -- the sliders' brioche lightly buttered and toasted (you can tell by the slightly burnt edges), the shrimp well-grilled, and the avocado smashed. Just like the mini fish tacos, these take only a few bites to finish, so add this to your list of bar nibbles.

We were still a bit hungry after the happy hour dishes, so we decided to split the tortilla-crusted soft-shell crab with an heirloom tomato salad, charred corn, and sherry vinaigrette. While the tomato-and-corn with vinaigrette was the perfect summation of summer, I'm not sure I could say the same for the soft-shell crab. Yes, it was plump, juicy, and sweet as it should be, but it was the tortilla-crust that did it in. It was a bit too much in texture and flavor, weighing down the lightness of the otherwise soft-shelled crustacean. Honestly, it was very distracting and a little abrasive to eat. Thankfully the tomatoes made it go down a little easier. I'd love to see a different variation to the soft-shelled crab -- I mean, just straight-up, traditional cornmeal would be fabulous!

Amanda's choice to split was the Mermaid Inn's signature dish, the lobster sandwich on a griddled brioche roll and Old Bay fries. When it comes to any kind of sandwich, roll, wrap etc., it is always best to toast/griddle/warm up the enveloping medium (whatever it may be), perhaps even with some butter, and you will never regret it. Same applies here -- the warmed, buttered brioche roll made the homemade, chunky lobster salad that much better. It was the ideal bun-to-content ratio, where the bread nor the salad overpowered each other, but rather worked in a delicious unison. The shoestring fries sprinkled with Old Bay was a nice touch as well.

As an after meal treat, we were served these espresso cups filled with chocolate pudding and whipped cream.

Along with our checks, Amanda and I were each given this little nostalgic doohickey from a magic shop -- a "Miracle Fish" with supposed fortune-telling abilities. Essentially, you remove this super thin, red plastic-shaped fish from its wrapper and place it in the palm of your hand. The fish determines your immediate "fortune" through its "movements" -- ultimately, the fish's composition of space-age polymer plastic is extremely heat sensitive, so your body temperature influences its actions (or lack thereof). Needless to say, Amanda and I both had "a "moving head and tail" which indicated that we were both "in love." While that certainly is a case (shout out to Marcus and Martin!), it's very amusing how superstitious malarky like horoscopes, numerology, and tarot cards can really play with one's confirmation bias. Nevertheless, it gave us a very lighthearted laugh to our awesome dinner here, so I really can't complain! :P

Findings: Mermaid Oyster Bar does so many things right -- I can't really point out anything that I didn't love about this place (well, maybe that tortilla-encrusted soft-shell crab). It not only has a warm and inviting space (almost like an instant portal in New York City to New England beach country), it boasts one mean seafood-savvy happy hour. The "small plates" are either by piece or large enough to share with a four to six person group, and the drink options cater to those who have a singular affinity for wine/beer/cocktails. If your stomach isn't isn't keen on seafood, this place may not be fore you, but for those who are hungry for maritime fare (especially if you're passionate about oysters), this is the perfect, casual joint for you.

Thanks again to Amanda for a wonderful dinner and for always being great company!

Price point: happy hour fried clam strips for $7, assortment of happy hour East/West Coast oysters for $1/$1.75 each, $3 for each mini taco, $7 for each slider, $15 for soft-shell crab, $26 for lobster sandwich.

--August 19, 2012

Mermaid Oyster Bar
79 MacDougal Street
New York, NY 10012

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