CAMDEN – Oysters were a high point of a good dinner at the White Lion Raw Bar & Bistro. Someone in the kitchen had applied the salt and pepper to several dishes with gusto, but that made a lovely excuse for another glass of wine.

The restaurant surrounds a wide granite bar, with ship models displayed against a wall of dark, diagonal paneling to one side. One table has two comfortable upholstered chairs drawn close, but others are ringed with painted wooden chairs in a handsome mishmash of style and color.

My dinner companions were local residents who could describe the earlier business in this space, Fitzpatrick’s Cafe, a breakfast place. With a tray to slide along a counter and short-order cooks at the ready, it was a far cry from the White Lion’s tranquil comfort, with placemats of woven bamboo lying on flowered tablecloths.

Three Gay Island oysters and three Pemaquid oysters ($10 for six) made an excellent beginning to our meal. Set in a porcelain shell on crushed ice, the oysters were accompanied by three little pots of sauce: cocktail sauce with extra horseradish and spice, cucumber mignonette and ponzu sauce, and a tangy citrus and soy mixture.

The Gay Island oysters were small and salty, with more delicate frilled mantles around the edge of their flat bodies. The Pemaquids were sweeter and meatier, and both were succulent and delightful. Pemaquid jumbos had run out. They’re costly at $3 each ($34 a dozen), but are “ridiculously huge,” according to Shelly Colantonio, a server and bartender.

Another excellent appetizer was simplicity itself: rock crab salad ($10) and avocado puree dressed with olive oil, with watercress and arugula scattered over the top to spice it up. Tender olive bread made a good companion to the creamy crab and avocado, with its own olive oil for dipping.

A glass of Jean-Luc Colombo 2008 Cote du Rhone Les Abeilles ($8), a medium- bodied tangy white with a scent of honey, tasted good with the seafood. Among the 10 wines by the glass, Dry Creek 2007 Zinfandel ($10) from California might be good with the steak.

At happy hour from 4 to 6 p.m., all drinks are $1 off, and the oysters are $2 off. Grey Goose Vodka with fresh squeezed grape juice and garnished with grapes ($10) is called a “grapetini.”

Halibut ($23) was mild, enriched with coconut milk and accompanied by soft and almost creamy white rice. This was the one dish we tried that was not aggressively hot and salty, and it made a welcome contrast to the other entrees. Lemongrass, galangal, lime leaves, limes and Thai chili make it a cross between Tom Yum Soup and Tom Kha coconut soup, according to the chef, Michael MacDonnell.

MacDonnell, 31, who started here in June, has been married to a Thai woman for 12 years and has been part of a Thai/Laotian family since he was a teenager.

“Everything I do is based on Thai flavors,” he said. His dishes always “cover the bases of salty and sweet and sour and a little bit of bitter,” and feature fresh herbs.

Rare New York strip steak ($22) was cooked just right. A red-wine reduction made with rosemary and thyme charged up every mouthful. Tough Swiss chard, the stems and ribs crunchy and undercooked, was a flaw, and perhaps the tangle of skinny fries hyper-seasoned with salt could have been toned down a notch, though each bite was full of uncompromising crunch.

Salmon ($20) had been perfectly seared, which releases its fragrant oils, and given a salty, peppery crust.

A crunchy risotto cake was like a vegetable echo, salty and crunchy on the exterior and soft and rich inside. A few cloves of garlic next to both had been darkly browned but remained pungent — either good or too strong, according to your preference. Watercress and parsley, chives, dill and cilantro lay over it all, adding green peppery and aromatic notes, which balanced the spicy crust of the fish.

A sauce made of brown butter with rosemary, thyme and a little citrus added its own complexities.

Creme brulee ($5) had a stiff texture, perhaps because it was partially still cool or cold, under a thick pane of caramelized sugar. Chocolate mousse ($5) was more alluring, served next to a smoothed cloud of thick whipped cream studded with sugared nuts. The nuts, gritty with sugar and roasted, were a fine choice with the dark, smooth chocolate, and had a nobler role here than in the salads they’ve been mixed up with in recent years.

Decaf coffee was strong and slightly bitter, easily tempered with a full pour of milk from a little glass pitcher.



N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of “Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast.”