"There are three kinds of oyster eaters: those loose-minded sports who will eat anything, hot, cold, thin, thick, dead or alive, as long as it is oyster; those who will eat them raw and only raw; and those who with equal severity will eat them cooked and no way other," M.F.K. Fisher writes in her essay "The Well-Dressed Oyster." The members of the second group, she notes, are to be admired for their purity of thought and action, even if they're too conservative in their beliefs to enjoy savory oyster stuffing or smoked oysters. And the third group, though overly wary of bacteria and food-borne illnesses, is responsible for inventing some of the world's best-known oyster recipes (think Rockefeller). But the first kind of oyster eater, Fisher points out, "may perhaps have the most fun."
I belong to that adventurous group, and so, apparently, do most of the folks who crowd into Spoto's Oyster Bar in West Palm Beach. A former fishing-supply store, the long, narrow space was transformed by proprietor John Spoto last December into a seafood restaurant of rare appeal. The brick floor, turquoise-splashed walls and ceiling, cherry-wood bar table, and seashell-printed banquettes are less South Florida than they are New England, reminiscent of restaurants like the Old Union Oyster House in Boston. And the menu, offering only an appetizer or two of chicken and one main course of beef (an excellent prime rib with creamy horseradish sauce) is not just for oyster eaters but for seafood lovers also. Finally, the mollusks, crustaceans, and fish brought in fresh each morning (Spoto's doesn't have a freezer) are deliciously affordable, exquisitely prepared, and served professionally by a friendly and knowledgeable waitstaff.
As the restaurant's name implies, oysters and clams from the raw bar are the biggest sellers. Mollusk maven Fisher, who passed away in 1993, was so obsessed with the "chilly gray body [as it] slips into a stew pan or under a broiler or alive down a red throat" that she titled one of her books Consider the Oyster. She would have been well satisfied at Spoto's, where choices include half a dozen bluepoints from Long Island ($7.50), Wellfleets from Cape Cod ($8.75), or Malpeques from Prince Edward Island ($8.75). Or she could have gulped two of each off the half-shell, squirted with lemon and spiked with a vibrant white horseradish ($8.50). I can also imagine her, well-bred lady that she was, sipping a bluepoint martini, a cocktail of raw oysters, horseradish, and vodka. (Request the Grey Goose vodka, which is almost fruity and exceptionally smooth.) "Dumb with pleasure... and with a dawning gastronomic hunger," Fisher may even have gone the expedient route, downing an oyster shooter as an aperitif. The shooter, a shot glass overflowing with a bluepoint oyster, Tabasco sauce, horseradish, and cocktail sauce, was so piquant I poured one into my Bloody Mary (a second and very appropriate aperitif) to spice it up.
Spoto's offers the persnickety oyster-eater a variety of broiled concoctions, many hard to resist. The oysters Rockefeller featured a moist bread-crumb top blended with spinach and fennel; the baked Brie oysters were blanketed with champagne sauce; and the oysters imperial featured so much lump crabmeat we had a hard time finding the delicate mollusk underneath. During one meal, taking advantage of our snoozing baby, my husband and I ordered the Casanova platter: four each of Rockefeller, Brie, and imperial, sumptuously prepared and presented on a bed of rock salt. The waiter must have thought we were thinking about making another baby. (Many believe that raw oysters are natural aphrodisiacs. Fisher, for one, never claimed they weren't. But keep in mind that sleeping babies eventually wake up and, sometimes, ruin the mood.)
As for Fisher's stew pan, the line cooks at Spoto's certainly know how to use one; the oyster stew was a triumph. Fisher writes that the dish is "a supper to sleep on." I'd add, "and dream on." Six plump bluepoints floated like Portuguese men-of-war in a hot, thin cream; unlike jellyfish, however, these succulent creatures didn't sting. The milky base of the "stew," which Fisher allows is hardly traditional (stew means simmered with a little fluid, and oyster stew is mostly fluid), was perked up with celery, less-typical paprika, and what tasted like a touch of grated cheese.
Fisher may have believed that "men have enjoyed eating oysters since they were not much more than monkeys," but I know some diners disagree. Simply put, not everybody loves the mollusk, raw or cooked. To that end Spoto's offers many other seafood dishes. Cherrystone clams, from Cape Cod, are a good oyster option, particularly when half a dozen are steamed with lemongrass and coconut milk -- though we found this dish just a touch too salty. Tomato-based Bahamian conch chowder, a less-fattening alternative to oyster stew, was exploding with tender, pounded conch, in addition to carrots, celery, and potatoes. The menu claims the conch chowder is spicy, but it could stand some tailoring to make it so. ("Chiliheads" will delight in the Tahiti Joe hot sauce served on the side.) Shrimp fanatics will flip over the jambalaya fettuccine, a main course of thick, homemade pasta noodles sauteed with jumbo shrimp, chunks of white-meat chicken, aromatic andouille sausage, olive oil, and grated cheese.
A couple of fish dishes were superior. The entree-size Niçoise salad was a mound of greens tossed with a pleasantly sharp balsamic-vodka vinaigrette, and garnished with new potatoes, garlic-marinated haricot verts, hard-boiled eggs, and sliced red onions. An inch-thick yellowfin tuna steak, seared sushi-rare, was excellent. And pecan-crusted rainbow trout, boned but with the skin on one side, was marvelous. The pecans had an almost maple flavor, and the lemon butter that dressed the flaky, freshwater fish was just tart enough to counteract the richness. Be warned, however, that main courses (excluding pasta) come with four side dishes: cinnamon-flavored spaghetti squash, creamed sweet potatoes, garlic-mashed white potatoes, and rice pilaf.
We're talking enough food to make diners want to skip dessert, which would be a shame. House-made sweets include a peanut-fudge pie, fragrant key lime pie, and tropical fruit tart, all of them almost impossibly lush. After two visits we couldn't help but be impressed with the consistency of Spoto's exhibits, both course-to-course and meal-to-meal.
We found just one drawback. The restrooms are marked "Pearls" and "Oysters." Fisher writes that pearls are "an oyster's parasites,... 'worm-coffins' built in what may be pain around the [foreign] bodies that have crept inside the shells." In other words, when oysters are threatened by an intruding speck of sand or a microscopic enemy, they'll coat it with protective secretions that harden into what we know as pearls. So exactly which gender is the oyster, and which one the pearl?
Spoto's Oyster Bar.
125 Datura St., West Palm Beach, 561-835-1828. Lunch and dinner daily from 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday till 1 a.m.
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Yellowfin tuna salad
Pecan-crusted rainbow trout