Oysters on the half-shell: a simple but labor-intensive dish that takes less than three seconds to send down the hatch and probably less than four minutes to devour a whole dozen, but an impressive amount of strength and agile shucking skills needed to prepare them for consumption.
Finding a good oyster bar in Orange County, much like shucking an oyster, was not an easy task. The only one that I knew of was Santa Monica Seafood, which sits on the border between Costa Mesa and Newport Beach, but only serves a variety of six oysters daily. Six was not enough for me.
Thus the search began and ended when Shuck Oyster Bar opened in August of 2012. Nestled in the OC Mart Mix, just yards away from Portola Coffee Lab (as seen in an edition of the Dish List from last quarter) comes with a modern, crisp and clean aesthetic with its white walls, butcher block counters, and concrete floor.
The OC Mart Mix, with its airy and open quarters and revolving pop-up shops is a perfect place for Shuck Oyster Bar, which is just as hip and unpretentious as its neighboring stores and eateries and enticing to the young, hip and modern crowd that streams through.
Owners and young restaurateurs Leonard Chan and Noah Blum decided to open Shuck after Blum walked by the then-empty space aside from the long, rectangular bar and thought that it would be a perfect place for an oyster eatery.
This is the third restaurant for Chan, whose previous outposts include California Shabu Shabu and Iron Press. Blum has been working on his soon-to-be opened restaurant, Ark, which will soon open in the OC Mart Mix.
Shuck’s variety of oysters is probably the most that Orange County has seen. With more than four dozen oysters ready to be shucked daily — fifty-five when I visited — it’s a dizzying array that come from all over North America.
Every night, oysters are shipped from oyster farms on either coasts of North America, straight from the farms that harvest them. Since oysters are shipped directly from the farms rather than a distribution center, you won’t come across a Kumamoto or Fanny Bay oyster at Shuck, but there are many days of the week where Shuck runs out of oysters, just based on their sheer popularity, quality of oysters and small quantity that they receive from each farm since they don’t get them in bulk from said distribution centers.
Now for the food. For lunch, we sprung for a dozen oysters and I ordered a bowl of the clam chowder to go with the little delicacies. With 55 varieties to choose from, we didn’t want to linger too long on the menu, so we decided to go with the Chef’s Choice plate in which the shucker-in-charge would pick the freshest oysters available that day. At three dollars an oyster, we were looking at a $36 plate. Perhaps at that moment of realization we regretted the fact that the fate of our meal lay in the hands of a complete stranger.
Before our bowl of crushed iced and perfectly shucked oysters came out, our server brought out three different sauces, including a fiery red habanero infused sauce, a green one full of fresh tomatillos and a classic mignonette sauce with sliced cucumbers swimming in the vinegar infusion. Of course, a side of freshly shredded horseradish came along for the ride as well.
Out came three each of Plymouth Oysters, three Mermaid Coves and six Hurricanes, all of which were fresh and on the briny side — meaning more salty than sweet. The oysters were perfectly chilled, free of any pieces of leftover sea dirt or rock and tasted as if they had just been plucked from a Washington bay and sent to our table.
As for the Clam Chowda’ that I ordered, which is one of the most popular items at Shuck alongside the oysters and the gooey grilled cheese, was a generously sized bowl of roux-based New England clam chowder. The soup came out nice and hot, with a petite baguette on the side.
Inside the large, white bowl was a heaping portion of chowder, rich, hearty and far from skimping on the clams and potatoes that floated around in the creamy mixture. However, the chowda’ was a tad on the salty side and made it too hard to finish every last bit of it.
Although Shuck Oyster Bar doesn’t have a happy hour, which makes the $3 a pop oyster a bit on the pricey side, their quality and large selection makes up for the fact that you’ll be, no pun intended, shelling out a bit money. To make up for their lack of a happy hour, they have no corkage fee, which means that you can bring in any bottle of alcohol you desire (a plus for the 21-plus crowd) and no charge will be added. That makes for an all-day happy hour.