These are valuable edicts in New York, where elbow room at a bar is at a premium, because designers are required to allow only 18 inches of counter space per person. But you'd also do well to keep them in mind at City Oyster. Though it's located on East Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach rather than the Upper East Side of Manhattan, City Oyster is built like a New York tavern: stamped-tin ceiling, brick interior walls, banquettes so big and plush you feel like Madeline climbing into one with her school chums. Brass rails separate the raised dining area from the bar, which on most nights is packed with singles-bar-scene patrons dressed in the requisite black, accessorizing their outfits with martinis.
If you have dined around the county, City Oyster might also remind you, both in looks and in name, of the pair of Big City Taverns in West Palm Beach and Boca Raton; City Hall Bar & Grill in West Palm Beach; and John Bull English Pub in West Palm Beach. No doubt the resemblance is deliberate, because all five eateries are owned by the Big Time Restaurant Group, an association that lately has been acquiring restaurants as readily as some people do stray cats. At six months old, City Oyster is one of the newest to join the pride, and it is also one of the sleekest. Even in the off-season, it is already difficult to score a table.
The reasons for this will become obvious when you do manage to sit down. Service is attentive, if a bit hyper; inform your server if a member of your party happens to be in the restroom, otherwise the place setting will be promptly whisked away. At times we were even tempted to ask our waiter to slow down. During one visit barely a minute had passed between the removal of our appetizer plates and the server's assurance that main courses would be right out. When all is said and done, though, I much prefer speedy service to slovenly.
But the real draw is the menu, focused on fish and shellfish, delectably presented. This is not as simple as it sounds. Willis Loughhead, executive chef of Tantra on South Beach, is currently designing an Italian seafood menu for AcQua, a new restaurant to open in Miami during the season. Seafood concepts, he tells me, are the toughest to negotiate in the business, because everything depends on the quality of the product. In other words there's just no cheating allowed. You can do all you want to flavor or dress up the fish or shellfish, but in the end it speaks for itself.
At City Oyster every bit of seafood is doing quite a bit of talking. In fact it's boasting: We're the freshest around. Sea scallops were particularly delicious. We sampled them as a mu shu appetizer, skewered, seared, and mounted over a slaw of Asian vegetables -- shredded carrots and cabbages strewn with sesame seeds. While we weren't fond of the overly orange-flavored hoisin sauce that came on the side, the scallops themselves had impeccable texture and flavor. The temperature of the skewered mollusks contrasted nicely with the cool slaw, which in turn carried a bit of chile-induced punch.
We also tried the scallops as a special entrée one evening, despite feeling a hint of trepidation: Too often, in fine-dining venues, I've been presented with a total of four measly scallops to a plate. Not so at City Oyster, where eight large scallops surrounded a sea of creamy risotto, itself informed by a luscious puddle of basil-based pesto. Indeed, the pesto cut the richness of both the scallops and the risotto, enabling us (almost) to finish off the serving.
If there's one thing to carp about at City Oyster, it's the warring influences with which chef Jon Hanley and executive chef Lisabet Summa season the food. Many of the dishes are Asian, while the rest descend from Italy and the Mediterranean. You could start a meal with the dai pai gong stuffed shrimp, three jumbos wrapped in rice noodles and deep-fried, and you'd be happy if you also ordered the mu shu scallops. But if you were looking to share a few starters and paired the delicate crabmeat-stuffed shrimp from the Orient with the hearty tomato-and-bread soup with mussels from the Boot, your palate might rebel.
On its own, however, the bread soup, like a zesty marinara with succulent chunks of bread and a handful of savory mussels thrown in, was filled with big, bright flavors. It could serve as a light meal or be a wonderful precursor to a caesar salad or a bowl of salmonandsun-dried tomato ravioli with summer vegetables and mascarpone cheese. For larger appetites the bread soup should be followed by the inventive monkfish osso bucco style. Two fillets of monkfish had been dredged and quickly sautéed, then perched over some buttery mashed potatoes. Surrounding the spuds was a deeply nuanced wine sauce rife with mushrooms and carrots. Grilled fennel and leeks lent contrasting perfumes and also gave the dish some texture.
So one dining strategy might be to identify a region -- Asia or the Mediterranean -- and stay within it. Or you could keep things even simpler. City Oyster lives up to its name by offering an ever-changing variety of oysters on the half shell, like Malpeques, Blue Points, Northumberlands, or Salt Aires, culled from international waters. You don't have to order a half-dozen or a dozen to sample them, either; you can ask for one of each. They'll arrive at your table just-shucked, still quivering and brimming with juices. Add a little cocktail sauce, squeeze a quartered lemon, and you're good to go. Then indulge in the "lobster shack" dinner, a steamed one-and-a-quarterpound Maine lobster that's so lush you don't need the drawn butter. The lobster came with some of the sweetest Red Bliss potatoes I've had this year, along with a side of refreshing, traditional coleslaw that could have used only a touch more mayo to be perfect.
Because seafood can be so supremely palate-satisfying, you may make the mistake of skipping dessert. But if you layer in some good wine from the thoughtfully chosen list, you should have the desire if not the actual physical appetite. (The Bouchaine pinot noir from Carneros vineyards for $35 doesn't overmatch fish or seafood and is a nice alternative to dry whites.) Then you won't have to overlook the strawberry napoleon, a crisp pastry layered with light cream and circumscribed with ripe berries. When you're stuffed to the gills, apply some more counsel from The New York Times: Know what you want; be polite or pushy as the occasion demands; tip generously; and establish yourself as a regular. These suggestions may or may not work in the competitive field of bar-hopping, but at City Oyster, you're going to need all the help you can get just to secure a table.