I had a business pow-wow on 42nd Street today, so I took advantage of being a block away from New York’s Grand Central Station and went for a recon mission. The station, aside from being one of the most photogenic in the US, is one of those rare places where transit and gastronomy co-exist and even thrive – something you really appreciate if you spend a lot of time at airports or that other, crappier NYC train depot, Penn Station.
So where other stations would have a Pizza Hut, I walked through the glorious stretch of the Grand Central Markets: a hall of gourmet producers and providores supplying quality cheeses, meats, fish and more. I sampled a terrific sausage flavoured with black truffle shavings, tasted a killer duck paté and ogled lots of dry-aged steak.
After the food-perving was done, we walked down to the Oyster Bar, an institution in Grand Central’s lower depths that’s been on my hitlist for years. My dining companion and I stepped inside the glass frontage and entered into the sprawling room, with tiled, curvaceous ceilings that conjure a feel somewhere between a Moorish temple and a circus tent. And before me lay a long countertop in a continuous snake around old-school waiters and waitresses.
To say that the Oyster Bar’s menu is a single page is true, and at the same time, a vast understatement. The daily-updated menu packs in a dizzying array of oysters – 34 different varieties on the list today – plus an equally extensive offering of fresh fish, plus often-fried appetisers, a cold buffet selection, stews, cooked and uncooked shellfish, main dishes, soups and more. I don’t get overwhelmed easily, but I found I couldn’t digest it all.
The first thing I did was defer to the waitress, who nullified my pick of a Belon wild oyster from Maine (too big), and requested that I allow her to choose the oysters for us. We happily deferred, and then added a couple of more tastes to accompany, including a shared bowl of New England Clam Chowder and a starter of Dungeness crab cocktail.
The good news is that the restaurant’s namesake more than does it justice: a choice of Blackberry Point oysters from Canada’s Prince Edward island were flavourful, lively and with the crispness of super-cold waters, and Totten Viginica’s from Washington State were also very satisfying, and would have been more so if I wasn’t pining for a few more of the Blackberries. Each oyster came accompanied with a lemon wedge, ketchup and a light vinegar, but I only sparingly used the latter to enhance the oysters. I thought the ketchup to be a strange condiment until I discovered that glasses filled with what looked like wet sugar were actually filled with horseradish. Add a dollop to the ketchup and voila – your own homemade cocktail sauce.
I’d go back to the Oyster Bar any day for its oysters, and there’s also a matter of a splendid wine list that’s nearly as long as the food menu, with an astonishing number by the glass – 77 on a rough count. What I wouldn’t return for, though, would be the clam chowder, which was overly creamy for my tastes, the too-dry biscuits that arrive pre-meal, and the Dungeness crab, which was so bereft of flavour (assumedly because it had been frozen for so long) that it may as well have been a faux Asian crabstick.
Yet I still have a yearning to return to the Oyster Bar, partly to sample more of its library of oysters and to visit more regions of its one-pager menu. There’s a whole “Today’s Catch” section to examine when I’m feeling hungrier, from pan-fried black cod to wild Columbia River red king salmon, and grilled surgeons steak with anchovy butter. Our waitress also recommended the oyster po’boy, oysters Rockefeller and fried Ipswich clams – none of which I heeded – and there’s also a matter of a $27.95 Maine lobster roll, which I’m still wondering whether it would be worth the lunchtime investment.
So the next time I’m close enough to hear the trains a’rollin’, I’m up for another round with the day’s catch. And it wouldn’t hurt to wade through those 77 glasses of wine. If I’m going to go off the rails, what better place to do it than at the station.
Oyster Bar & Restaurant, Grand Central Station, New York, www.oysterbarny.com