Oyster city

Downtown New York — the seaport in particular, our little neighborhood over on the east side — needs an oyster bar. It’s a shame it doesn’t have one, really, but it’s been a while since the seaport had the sort of local culture that could support it. It doesn’t even have a viable seafood place, unless you count Carmine’s, which I generally don’t, though they get points for not catering to the mall crowd. (The mall itself has a couple places nominally dedicated to seafood, but like anyone else who actually lives here, we eschew these “restaurants” on principle: the principle that we like food with flavor. I suppose we also like to eat at places where the local/tourist ratio is in our favor.) The old fish joints associated with the Fulton Fish Market — Sweet’s and Sloppy Louie’s among the last of them — closed in the ’90s, just before we moved here, and years before the market itself was finally forced to close shop here and head north to Hunt’s Point.

I’d been thinking of oysters lately, probably because this book‘s been getting a lot of play in these parts. I’ve only thumbed through it once and will buy it sooner or later, I’m sure. I’d also just reread a bunch of Joseph Mitchell’s classic sketches about my neighborhood, “stories of fish-eating, whiskey, death, and rebirth.” In the late ’40s, Mitchell, of the New Yorker, responded to the gradual decline of old New York culture by chronicling the city’s hidden secrets, out-of-the-way places like the seaport, neighborhoods David Rockefeller would just as soon rip up so he could build new skyscrapers. (The World Trade Center was originally planned for the seaport. It would have resulted in the removal of Schermerhorn Row and the rest of the historic waterfront.) Mitchell created a composite character named Old Mr. Flood, a “tough Scotch-Irishman” of ninety-three, who had “rarely eaten anything but seafood since 1885” and was in “sound shape.” Mr. Flood had particular opinions about the lack of local fish-eating options even then, but his were clearly more varied than ours:

To Mr. Flood, the flesh of finfish and shellfish is not only good to eat, it is an elixir. “When I get through tearing a lobster apart, or one of those tender West Coast octopuses,” he says, “I feel like I had a drink from the fountain of youth.” He eats with relish every kind of seafood, including sea-urchin eggs, blowfish tails, winkles, ink squids, and barn-door skates. He especially likes an ancient Boston breakfast dish — fried cod-fish tongues, cheeks, and sounds, sounds being the gelatinous air bladders along the cod’s backbone. … He insists, however, on the plainest of cooking. In his opinion, there are only four first-class fish restaurants in the city — Sweet’s and Libby’s on Fulton Street, Gage & Tollner’s in Brooklyn, and Lundy’s in Sheepshead Bay — and even these, he says, are disinclined to leave well enough alone. Consequently he takes most of his meals in Sloppy Louie Moreno’s, a busy-bee on South Street frequented almost entirely by wholesale fishmongers from Fulton Market, which is across the street. Customarily when Mr. Flood is ready for lunch, he goes to the stall of one of the big wholesalers, a friend of his, and browses among the bins for half an hour or so. Finally he picks out a fish, or an eel, or a crab, or the wing of a skate, or whatever looks best that day, buys it, carries it unwrapped to Louie’s, and tells the chef precisely how he wants it cooked.

Now that’s what I’m talking about. Of Mr. Flood’s four restaurants, only Lundy’s way out in Sheepshead Bay is still around, though it’s apparently closed and reopened more than once. I’ve never been, but would like to next time we’re out at Brighton Beach. Gage & Tollner’s was apparently replaced by a TGI Friday’s, and Sweet’s and Sloppy Louie’s have been replaced by a tourist-friendly chain brewpub. You know, that’s the kind of urban crime I’d like to see on the decline, Messrs. Giuliani and Bloomberg.

Shaffer City, a brilliant old-school seafood place and raw bar hiding behind an unassuming front on 21st Street, is the most recent reason I’ve been bemoaning the lack of a raw bar down here. Why couldn’t something like this move in to the new spots on Front or Peck Slip?

The other day, when we’d just finished shopping up aound the Flatiron, Stephanie and I had about an hour to kill and we both had a hankering for oysters. I’d walked past Shaffer’s a couple dozen times but never had a chance to check it out, so we went. And we were not disappointed: two full pages on the oyster menu, a page each for east and west coasts. We couldn’t decide where to start, so our waiter helped us pick a dozen, two of each, alternating coasts, and ranging in size from the delicate little Long Island Shaffers (grown in beds the restaurant owns and harvests exclusively) to the three-inch-long Cortez, from British Columbia, which went down, as Stephanie put it, like a hamburger. The Nootkas, also native to B.C., though these came from Oregon, were almost fluffy, like little air pockets, and may have been our favorites. We were a little disappointed by the Skookums, from Puget Sound, which we chose for sentimental reasons (Skookum being the name of some apple orchards where Steph grew up). They had a bit too metallic a taste. The Prince Edward Island malpeques were the perfect size and had the perfect amount of ocean salt in their liquor, and the Martha’s Vineyards, just in season, went down without trying. Wanting to compare the tastes, we left the condiments untouched, and I think from now on that’s the way I’ll go — nothing to mess up the oyster’s own flavor. With a couple drinks it set us back $50, but we left feeling almost like we’d had dinner.

Mitchell’s Old Mr. Flood warns that “people who are unaccustomed to oysters sometimes behave real queer after putting away a few dozen.” They fall victim to fits, what Flood calls an oyster “seizure.” But for those with a steady seafood diet, the oyster can serve medicinal purposes. Here’s Flood warning a sick friend away from a doctor and toward Libby’s instead:

“[T]ell the man you want to eat some of his big oysters. Don’t sit down. Stand up at that fine marble bar they got over there, where you can watch the man knife them open. And tell him you intend to drink the oyster liquor; he’ll knife them on the cup shell, so the liquor won’t spill. And be sure you get the big ones. Get them so big you’ll have to rear back to swallow, the size that most restaurants use for fries and stews; God forgive them, they don’t know any better. Ask for Robbins Islands, Mattitucks, Cape Cods, or Saddle Rocks. And don’t put any of that red sauce on them, that cocktail sauce, that mess, that gurry. Ask the man for half a lemon, poke it a time or two to free the juice, and squeeze it over the oysters. And the first one he knifes, pick it up and smell it, the way you’d smell a rose, or a shot of brandy. That briny, seaweedy fragrance will clear your head; it’ll make your blood run faster. And don’t just eat six; take your time and eat a dozen, eat two dozen, eat three dozen, eat four dozen. And then leave the man a generous tip and go buy yourself a fifty-cent cigar and put your hat on the side of your head and take a walk down to Bowling Green. Look at the sky! Isn’t it blue? And look at the girls a-tap-tapping past on their pretty little feet! Aren’t they just the finest girls you ever saw, the bounciest, the rumpiest, the laughingest? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself for even thinking about spending good money on a damned doctor? And along about here, you better be careful. You’re apt to feel so bucked-up you’ll slap strangers on the back, or kick a window in, or fight a cop, or jump on the tailboard of a truck and steal a ride.”

Out with friends on Saturday, we walked down to Ulysses — not quite to Bowling Green, but not far from it, either — for burgers. And so we ordered more oysters, unable to get them out of our system. But the lack of selection was really a drag, as was the atmosphere. Can’t someone with a little dough put a classy raw bar in this neighborhood, where it would seem so natural a fit?

4 responses to “Oyster city”

  1. Tim Wager says:

    When *is* oyster season, exactly? I think there are some months in which it’s a bit dicey to eat them, yes? There’s some sort of folkloric saying like, “Don’t eat oysters when there’s no ‘r’ in the month.” That would rule out May to August, I guess, but I’m not really sure if I got it right. Anyone?

  2. as i gather, the “r” month rule is a holdover from pre-global refrigerated shipping times — a good rule to follow for a lot of local oyster regions. the place we ate at flies oysters in from the pacific 5 days a week. it’s true, though, that more places yield in fall and winter, or fall to late spring. the oyster fest in our neighborhood (which ulysses is wrapped up in, so i give them that) happens in october. the cortez island oysters we ate were the biggest oysters i’d ever had. i told the server that and he said, “come back in a couple weeks.” the martha’s vineyards we had are harvested from mid-april to the end of the year. here’s a great site for determining what’s good when, separating out atlantic from pacific.

  3. PB says:

    OK Bryan, totally random thought for a 19th cent lit guy that is not about oysters at all (although I love love love them). My Dad used to read me this poem as a kid called “Mr. Flood’s Party” by Robinson (I think). Coincidence? Based on a real seafood guy? The town drunk in the poem is a bit of a poet as well.
    PS–no wonder oysters get the reputation they do–your “fluffy, like little air pockets” line is damn sexy.

  4. mitchell calls him “Hugh G. Flood,” which I take to be “huge flood.” He’s antediluvian, in a sense — he predates the wave of mid-century construction that was just beginning to threaten the old downtown neighborhoods (though it wouldn’t climax until the late 60s). But there’s some irony to the character as well: he is a retired “house-wrecking contractor.” In one great scene he threatens to steal some old iron working in order to preserve it.

    Mitchell was one of the founders of the South Street Seaport Museum, which is responsible for the preservation of most of what I think of as our “neighborhood” — the largest low-rise warehouse district left in Manhattan. It’s only now being fully developed into high-end rental stuff — some of it a little on the tacky side.

    Robinson’s poem was published in 1920. Maybe Mitchell was recalling it (one of his stories is even called “Mr. Flood’s Party,” which was published in 1945). I’m not sure, but Mr. Flood does decide to throw his own party for his friends (his 95th) because his daughter in the suburbs won’t let him drink whiskey, and he’s obliged to be at her house on his actual birthday.

    Thanks for nice words re: fluffy oysters. — bw