New York City – There are certain things that are quintessentially New York experiences. The Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and Times Square spring to mind. On the food front, New York’s primarily claim to fame is diversity and quantity. There are few places on the planet, if any, that can match it for the varied number of cuisines available and probably nowhere that can match it for the shear numbers of venues available per capita. But in terms of specific venues that are definable as “New York experiences,” I can only think of two, over the 23 years I spent here, that qualify. One is the 2nd Avenue Deli, where I had lunch the day I arrived back (one could argue for Carnegie or Katz’s Deli, for me the former is too touristy and the latter, while very “New York,” just doesn’t put out the quality that it used to); the other is the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal.
Now, there are oyster bars and seafood places that top it for quality, and possibly even for variety (though that would be hard, if you’ve ever seen the inordinately long menu), but there just isn’t anywhere else that is the setting that is the Oyster Bar. Actually, I’d heard that a group of Japanese restaurateurs had more or less recreated the venue in Tokyo, but I looked at that restaurant’s website and they’ve gussied the place up a bit, with a terrace for outside dining and such. It’s on the fourth floor of a building near the train station there – just not the same as the underground venue by the tracks with its vaulted tile ceilings, streams of commuters and tourists going by, coming in to look and to eat, or the continuous overhead announcing of departures and arrivals so that diners don’t miss their trains. For those in the know, and you are now, the ONLY place to eat is in the bar room – either at the lunch counter or the oyster bar itself. Eating in the dining room or the saloon will immediately mark you as a tourist and subject you to deportation on the next outgoing train.
The menu is too varied to try everything one might want to in one sitting, and over the years I’ve tried a wide range of fish, zillions of varied oysters, and a few favorites, like what is very possible the best She Crab Soup on the planet (with enough calories and richness to cover you for a week), the Oyster Pan Roast, or the Sturgeon with Anchovy Butter (which they were out of yesterday). My friend Tom and I decided to keep it simple, and launched our meal with a Maine Crabcake – big, plump, juicy, lightly spiced – a decent take on this dish, and, of course, a plate of raw oysters – in this case, half a dozen Kumamotos from Oregon. Oysters are, after all, what the place is all about. We went on to a couple of plates of simple grilled fish – a yellowtail and a scrod, each accompanied by the same melange of vegetables, and a shared dish of the house’s creamed spinach, a dish well worth ordering.