Ninety percent of Florida's oysters come from Apalachicola Bay, a 30-mile region where harvesters still pluck them with tongs. Plump and mellow, these warm-water oysters are clean and less salty than most. Locals swear by them, and loyalists venerate them, yet you won't find them raw at G&B Oyster Bar, the sibling to Coconuts.
Gulf oysters have to be one of the most beat-up shellfish. Count me as one of the critics who won't eat them raw, and it's not just over the warm-water-only bacteria that sickened seven people last year. Gulf oysters are simply less elegant than those from cold waters. They're too similar to milky, flaccid, out-of-season oysters served up north in August.
So it's no surprise that G&B doesn't serve Gulf oysters raw, only deep fried. The new restaurant shows its attention to detail in swapping the Gulf oysters for their sweet cousins from cold waters. G&B Oyster Bar opened in January, named after co-owner Eliot Wolfe's children, Gates and Bennett. The restaurant features seafood favorites from around the country prepared by chef Steven Shockey. Though Coconuts and G&B have two distinct identities, the restaurants nestled next to each other have recently combined menus, despite that each has its own kitchen and concept. Coconuts offers more meat options and traditional fare than G&B's stylish menu. I'm a fan of both restaurants but lean toward the oyster bar because I prefer a room of bar tables and a view of the oyster shuckers.
The seats are nearly filled around the bar that dominates G&B, a minimalist space with whitewashed wood paneling and blue glass tiles. Though the design leans toward industrial minimalism, the open-air room makes for easy conversations rather than sound bouncing off stark spaces. Swivel a seat to the open room for a wide vista of the relative brightness of G&B, in contrast to the dark intimacy of Coconuts, which is connected by a narrow causeway.
I'm smitten with the space, although some wish it were cozier. "My ass keeps sliding off the seat," says a woman next to me. She's right — the seats are abnormally small. Dressed like a prepster in capris, boat shoes, and a button-down, she's there with her husband, daughter-in-law, and son. A transplant from Massachusetts, she claims the restaurant has become her new favorite, if only she could keep herself from sliding off the metal chair.
Though Apalachicolas are sold battered and fried on the menu at G&B, the celebrated oysters here are metallic-tasting Malpeques that are both briny and bold. There also are the dainty Kusshis steeped in liquor. The latter are so clean and beautiful, I need a moment of silence.
No matter where you're sitting, it's a front-row seat to the shucking station, thanks to the giant mirror overhead. Round metal trays filled with shaved ice display wheels of raw shellfish that smell clean and fresh. Lemons serve as garnish. Red wine vinegars serve for dipping. A shucker slides the knife into the hinge, angled down toward the oyster's cup. A flick of the wrist signals the twist of the knife moments before the oyster yields. To an oyster lover, this meat is more prized than a pearl.
Co-owner Wolfe says they ensure fresh, safe oysters by buying from reputable vendors, by building relationships with oyster farmers, by tasting each batch that arrives, and by checking the pedigree. "We check that the date on the shipment shows they were harvested a day or two earlier," he says. Each box arrives marked with the Latin name, the town from which the oysters were harvested, the name of the oyster company, and the date they were pulled from the water. This method is as meticulous as restaurateurs can get, just short of lab testing. The key is making sure the oysters are priced to move, so they're sold as fast as they're coming in.
Oysters aren't the only items that harken from elsewhere. There's the decadent lobster cheese steak, a nod to both Maine and Philly, served on a crusty loaf with knuckle meat, cheddar cheese, peppers, onions, and bacon. I love it in spite of myself, since I prefer seafood simply seasoned, no cheese involved. Also served on that crusty Italian loaf is the muffuletta, the signature sandwich of N'awlins and one of the few meat-focused items on the menu. It's a respectable nod to the classic, but there are so many more interesting dishes to try here. Both sandwiches illuminate a creative culinary team that's participating in the national dialogue on regional cuisine.
Also from elsewhere is the spot-on tribute to San Francisco by way of Italy: a bowl of cioppino, the humble fisherman's stew of mussels, clams, crab, and whitefish in a white wine and tomato sauce. Ask for extra toasts to sop that delicious broth. Disappointing is the too-sweet Ahi tuna that debuts as poke, an Asian-inspired Hawaiian dish of cubed fish, sea salt, soy, inamona, sesame oil, seaweed, and chili pepper. It would be delicious with more heat and balance.
When I visited the oyster bar with my mother, she was curious about the frog legs, which we had both last seen on a menu during the 1980s. She tried one leg and passed them off to me. "You eat those," she said. She's no prima donna, but she was not enjoying the process of eating Kermit. The battered Hoppers, as they're named on the menu, are served with a spicy mango dipping sauce, a fun idea that falls short. Not as meaty as a chicken wing, the little bones make for awkward eating.
A bowl of mussels are plump and fresh, though they're served with sausage that distracts from the delicacy of the shellfish. If that doesn't bother you, they're quite good.
Prices for oysters range from $2.50 to $3.50, a dollar above what you'll find elsewhere, primarily because of freshness and rising transportation costs. The rest of the menu is priced fairly, with most items falling between $12 and $25, including the wine.
Picpoul is one of my favorite easy-drinking, warm-weather white varietals for its flinty minerality and clean finish. A spicy Sauvignon Blanc also serves as terrific seafood pairing. Among reds are medium-bodied George Duboeuf Morgon and the Chandon pinot noir: a well-priced, interesting selection. By-the-glass options cost $8 to $10 yet less than $30 by the bottle — even cheaper on Mondays and Tuesdays, when all wine is half price. Beers are the usual suspects: Anchor Steam, Michelob Ultra, Drifter Pale Ale. I wish the beer list were as compelling as the wines.
G&B offers a menu that's among the most exciting in the area, with items such as sardines paired with citrus and anchovy boquerones for adventurous eaters. These dishes have graced the menus in cities on both coasts for the past few years yet are slow to make an appearance here because of a perceived conservative clientele. Thankfully, the partners recognize that visitors and locals alike have more urbane palates than the local industry gives credit.
Including such daring items on the menu is a calculated risk with rewards. Serving Apalachicolas raw is not. "I like a cleaner oyster," says Wolfe, a former Chicagoan whose palate was shaped by cold-water oysters. "Serving those oysters raw is a risk I don't want to take."