I decided to take Jacqueline to lunch at The Oyster Bar, situated on the suburban level of Grand Central Terminal. This was to be my first visit there as host, though I’ve gone often enough by myself to The Oyster Bar’s oyster bar.
Sitting there, I usually find it fascinating to watch Nick Petters and his cohorts make up, in “oyster cookers” that seem to be silver-plated and steam-heated, the establishment’s quite celebrated oyster stew, among other things. (Equally fascinating, in another way, is watching diners—who have just polished off this sublime blend of oysters, oyster juice, clam broth, milk, butter, paprika, salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and celery salt—consume, with apparent zest, great leaden wedges of The Oyster Bar’s unbelievably bad pies. There really is no accounting for tastes, I guess.
Jacqueline, my food-conscious friend, naturally had recollections of The Oyster Bar.
“I used to come here as a child with my father,” she said. “I’ve never liked stewed oysters so I’d give him the oysters from my stew and I’d eat the broth.”She spoke as we were having cocktails at “our” table, but I had a gnawing suspicion that we were seated there by mistake. After a few moments I did a little reconnaissance. Sure enough. In the vastness of The Oyster Bar we had strayed into the table-service room of the lunch counter, wedged behind the L-shaped stand-up bar. We were distant from the spacious dining room, where we had a table reserved, by the entire length of the oyster bar and lunch counter. This little contretemps at least allowed me to compare the lunch counter menu (an all-day affair that is larger than the oyster bar’s but identical in price) to that of the dining room. The dining room luncheon menu is more extensive and expensive (a few cents more for the great Oyster Bar specialties, perhaps an average of half again as much for the rest of the items).
Once we were comfortably seated on a sea-green banquette, an assortment of salt rolls, Melba toast, poppy-seed rolls, and a pumpernickel bun was set before us. Jacqueline ordered the peppery seafood bisque and I the Cape Cod oyster cocktail: six beauties on the half shell, with lemon wedges, arranged around some chili sauce, with Tabasco, horseradish, and oyster crackers on the side.
My late predecessor, Iles Brody, in an old “Spécialités de la Maison” column, had solved the seafood cocktail dilemma once and for all.
“You see,” I told Jacqueline, “a spicy cocktail sauce is delicious, but it kills the taste of the seafood—especially of oysters, which ought to be eaten only with lemon juice. So what to do with the sauce? Brody said to dip bread in it after you’ve eaten the seafood. It’s a great idea. I only hope that I can come up with one thing as good as that while I’m writing the column.”
Only about half of the entrées offered that day were in the fish-and shellfish category. The Oyster Bar has a good selection of steaks and chops, and there were also eggs Florentine, Polish sausage, shish kebab, and filet mignon Stroganoff—among others—on the nonseafood side. But it was precisely the seafood that interested us, so Jacqueline had the fresh crab meat Dewey and I the bouillabaisse à la Oyster Bar.
The bouillabaisse was quite distinctive: a mound of lobster, shrimps, scallops, white fish, and whole clams, in a copious thick broth in which saffron and tomato vied for the dominance. At first I was a bit overwhelmed, but “the appetite came in the eating,” and I spooned the bowl clean. (There was a variant, bouillabaisse marseillaise, on the dinner menu of the same day. This is described as including a half lobster, clams, shrimps, scallops, and various fish, served in a pot with a side dish of croutons and saffron mayonnaise. Sounds worth investigating.)