February 24, 2013

Dine Out Maine: J's Oyster upholds its authentic seafood street cred

By SHONNA MILLIKEN HUMPHREY

J's Oyster offers character without dipping into caricature, and this, I suspect, divides diners into two camps: Those who relish the J's hole-in-the-wall experience and those who do not.

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Sitting just feet from the harbor on Portland Pier, J’s is a “sleeves rolled up, slurp some oysters” kind of joint. And make no mistake: It is a joint.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

DINING REVIEW

J'S OYSTER

5 Portland Pier, Portland

772-4828; tinyurl.com/JsOyster

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday; noon to 10:30 p.m. Sunday

****

PRICE RANGE: $3.50 to market price, with seafood dinner entrees in the $20 range. Raw oysters cost $12.50 for a baker's dozen, and most sandwiches are $4.50 to $7.50.

BAR: Full

CREDIT CARDS: All major

VEGETARIAN: Those who eat shellfish will leave satisfied.

KIDS: No children's menu

RESERVATIONS: No

OUTSIDE SEATING: Seasonal tables

WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: The beer is cold, the chowder is hot, the bar is dark and oysters are ample and cheap. On a cold, dreary winter day, J's is an excellent Hemingway-style option to ride out (or hide out from) the storm. Definitely order the steamers and some chowder. If you go in the summer, expect a wait. Always follow the rules, be polite and never mess with the wait staff.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value:

*Poor  **Fair  ***Good ****Excellent *****Extraordinary.

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory. The reviewer dines anonymously.

It's important to manage expectations, and because J's is a joint that has welcomed oyster seekers to Portland's waterfront since 1977, it's doing something right.

Over time, J's Oyster has accepted the reputation of "where locals go" -- or, more condescendingly, a place for local "color." Add that visit from Anthony Bourdain, and on any given August evening, there is likely to be a J's hostess stationed in the makeshift parking lot dining area and a thick knot of out-of-state license plates angling for parking and hungry for "real Maine." At least, this has been my experience.

Personally, I prefer J's in the off-season. It's dark, it's dusty and the windows need washing. Rainy or snowy days are best. There is a Hemingway quality to J's, and I can easily imagine the literary Papa nursing a drink at one of the copper-topped tables, watching the boats toss just outside the gray window mist.

Martinis at J's are made super-cold with generous pours and cheap olives. Remnants from the cocktail shaker are brought as well, adding at least another half drink to the cost. It's a very good deal and a great way to spend an afternoon.

Recall that 1977's Commercial Street had not yet seen the revitalization and influx of tonier eateries, and this historical context helps the J's aesthetic make sense. Both of the entrances are side doors accessed by side streets, and that awkward layout contributes to the appearance.

Once inside, the U-shaped bar dominates the space, and table seating is crowded. An ancient Winston cigarette machine with pull-knobs stands in the paneled route to the restrooms, signifying that J's is indeed a throwback.

First, the oysters -- and I can already feel the heat of protesters saying, "But the oysters aren't local." No, they are not. When I asked why J's serves Chesapeakes from the James River, the answer made sense. They have done business with the supplier for decades, the oysters are not farmed and, bottom line, J's can sell them cheaper to customers.

Served simply, with the muscle still attached (and occasionally sporting bits of errant shell), these are not elegant oysters, but rather the "get your hands dirty" kind. Accoutrements include lemon and cocktail sauce with a red plastic pitchfork and a little bag of crackers. At $12.50 per baker's dozen, the price is right.

People get heated about lobster rolls, too, and J's serves them straight up -- a toasted white hot dog roll overflowing with cool lobster and a little packet of Hellman's on the side. Diners will either love or hate this method, but at $13.50 for a massive portion of sweet lobster meat and, depending on the season, a corn cob or coleslaw, it's hard for this writer to complain.

While J's New England clam chowder is certainly good and the fish chowder delicious (both cost $5.50 for a cup), I suggest an upgrade to the lobster stew ($9.50). The sherry taste is sweet but not overpowering, and the portion, even the cup, is substantial and satisfying. It's rich, but not too rich. Creamy, but not too thick. I loved every lobster-filled spoonful.

Make sure to order steamed clams, too. A regular bucket ($15.50) is plenty for a party of four to share, and a large bucket ($18.50) is an afternoon project. With no hint of grit, these steamers are the real deal.

If your hunger is bigger than a chowder, steamers or plate of oysters (although I advocate just ordering more of each), J's offers a menu of sandwiches, salads and seafood entrees. Be warned: The salads are the basic lettuce-tomato-cucumber variety and accompanied by a packet of Ken's dressing. The sandwiches, while certainly a convenient downtown lunch option, are not particularly memorable.

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