Remember the adage about only eating oysters in months that contain an “R”? The warning’s premise is based on the historical lack of refrigeration, but interestingly, many still maintain that the best oyster eating happens in fall and winter. Why? Because oysters tend to spawn in the warm spring and summer months, making them watery and less flavorful.
Whether legend or biologically argued, now is the perfect time to consume oysters, because Portland’s Eventide Oyster Co. offers a perfect oyster bar experience.
Clean, abundant, carefully prepared, attention to decor, knowledgeable staff — these were the notes I scribbled between bites. I hesitated at the cocktail prices (seriously, $9?), but as soon as I tasted the Bloody Mary, I happily laid down my cash. The Bloody Maria, made with tequila, is the actual menu item, but I opted for the off-menu purist approach.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Eventide sits next door to Hugo’s, now run by original staff members Arlin Smith, Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley, and the oyster bar represents the team’s newest venture.
(A note about the Apple device-carrying server and her efficient finger tapping: I suspect this is a glimpse into the future of waiting tables, absent the numbered guest checks this former server recalls counting in my front apron pocket.)
At any given moment, at least one of the three owners stood in shucking position at the bar, ready to mix drinks and talk shop in an atmosphere that found a balance between urban hipster and just hip. The fun ’80s music was a bit loud, but it made for great spontaneous dancing (by other customers, not me) and terrific people-watching.
The pottery, iridescent and oyster shell-inspired, comes from Yarmouth ceramic artist Alison Evans. The high ceiling and blond wood accentuated the wall colors, a paler version of not-quite-Tiffany blue. Reclaimed nautical ephemera and a restroom sink, also by Evans, made the space clever, not kitschy.
Because the visit happened during Sunday brunch time, my husband Travis chose a Murphy’s stout ($5), which prompted a conversation with co-owner Mike behind the bar, who noted its deliberate presence on the beer menu. While Travis and Mike talked beer ethos, I worked my way down the line of the House Charcuterie ($12) and its sampling of six house-cured meats, of which the prosciutto was the stuff of shaved paper-thin meat dreams.
The corned beef, topped with spicy mustard, led to a description of Maine’s meat-curing scene (yes, there is a meat-curing scene), and I learned that some European meat masters have years-long wait lists for their products. The discussion segued to the ethics of responsible meat eating, and rather than intrusive, it felt like chatting with a well-informed friend.
Mike directed our attention to the custom-made cement bar, overflowing with oysters and constantly being refilled with ice. Little wooden sticks marked the varieties like a bivalve garden plot, and it works like this: Pick either a half- or full dozen ($15 and $27), grouped by “Maine” and “From Away.” Mixing and matching is encouraged. There were 16 varieties listed on the chalkboard, but the rotation varies, and the popular oysters can sell out quickly.
Favorites from Maine include Bath’s Winter Point and the Pemaquid from Damariscotta. From away favorites were Washington’s legendary and petite Kumomoto, as well as Beau Soleil from New Brunswick.
Oyster enthusiasts maintain that to fully experience oysters, you must chew them, and I agree. Describing the taste is tougher, and even expert Rowan Jacobsen notes, “Something about oysters resists every attempt to describe them.” Jacobsen explains that “oyster flavor, like perfume notes, comes in three stages, and texture is part of stage two. The first stage involves salt, the second stage body and sweetness, and the third floral or fruity finishes.”
For oyster brunch, we opted for a dozen Dodge Cove oysters from Damariscotta — restrained in salinity, midrange of body, and with a subtle citrus finish. Easier to describe are the accoutrements from the Eventide list. Standards like lemon (lemon juice tempers the oyster’s salt taste) and cocktail sauce are available, but if you are feeling adventurous, try the Mimosa Mignonette, Tomato Water or Horseradish Ice. A bit of these condiments lifted from demitasse fork onto shell, and the oyster experience can change profoundly.
Eventide offers a menu of non-oyster entrees and sides, and I wanted to try each one. How do you decide between Kampachi Tartare ($10) and Local Yellowfin Crudo ($9)? Between Crispy Pork Belly ($17) and Battered Gulf of Maine Hake ($8)? And given the deliciousness of the quickly consumed charcuterie, I became even hungrier to see what the kitchen would do with standards like Baked Beans or Biscuits (each $4).
Trav and I ordered the Heirloom Tomatoes ($7) and the New England Clambake ($32). Savory pieces of red and green tomato arrived with a sprinkle of grilled bread crumbs and herbs on top. Simple and tasty, the way tomatoes are meant to be enjoyed.
The New England Clambake ($32), served in a bamboo steamer reminiscent of late-1970s infomercials, included a lobster tail, mussels, steamers, potato, salt pork, corn and a hard-boiled egg all tucked into a nest of rock seaweed. The contained presentation made for a lovely snack bowl, and we munched our way through the basic sampler.
While we ate, lingering without feeling rushed, I kept looking for some imperfection, some annoyance or arrogance — any niggling aspect to criticize. But all I came up with is the limited seating. It could be a bummer, as the room space is small and there are just two picnic tables. That said, a ring of bar stools circles the interior, and patrons can choose a window seat or a view of the bar. At each of these seating options were typical Sunday people: Laughing groups of morning-after hipsters with ’80s dance moves, graying Hemingway-esque gentlemen hunkered over a plate, a tourist couple and what looked like a meet-the-family situation in the corner. It was excellent people-watching on a sunny morning.
One benefit of sitting at the bar is seeing other preparations emerge from the kitchen, to include the Fried Oyster Bun ($7), a series of little po’ boys — mini buns with nuggets of breaded and fried oysters tucked inside. “For people who say they don’t like oysters,” Mike noted, and I made a mental note to return.
Honestly, when examined against the premise Eventide advertises — upscale and well-prepared food that fills a distinct niche, in a casual and uniquely local space for a variety of incomes and clientele — I found little to fault.
Eventide Oyster Co. sets a standard and ups the oyster game. Portland is lucky to have it in town.
The writer wishes to credit Rowan Jacobsen’s “A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America” (Bloomsbury USA, 2007).
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.