For a magazine called The Bay that covers the Ocean State and the Bay State, it’s ironic that this column has not covered a bona fide seafood restaurant in well over a year. It’s not that we’re slipping – many of the latest and greatest restaurant openings have been in other dining categories. Although opening a restaurant requires a great deal of entrepreneurialism and fortitude, could it be that few of today’s budding restaurateurs have the pearls to tackle seafood, the hallmark of New England dining? Don’t tell that to Pete Sebring at Bristol Oyster Bar.
Pete has spent a lifetime in and around the water, from working on offshore fishing boats to raising oysters and operating an aquaculture supply company. Bristol Oyster Bar is his first restaurant venture and although a rookie in that respect, he is a seasoned veteran where it counts – identifying and sourcing the best and freshest local products. It’s experience that diners can literally taste.
Bristol Oyster Bar is located in the heart of downtown Bristol, tucked away in a historic brick building that formerly housed the YMCA. You’ll see large, arched windows set back from the sidewalk long before you notice any signage, and that’s when you’ll know you’re in the right spot. The space is relatively small, but the high ceilings and clean design create a comfortable setting. An oyster bar serving libations and shellfish anchors the center, and most seats have a view of the open kitchen.
I’ve heard many colleagues rave about the almost nightly Oyster Special – $1 oysters from 4 to 6pm – but on this night we arrived too late to catch it. A pleasant young waitress seated us by one of the large windows with a view of Hope Street and we started by scanning the drink menu. I normally stick to beer or wine, but the cocktail list had one concoction I couldn’t ignore – a Skinny Mary ‘Tini ($13) made with Keel vodka, a dash of cocktail sauce and a choice of shrimp cocktail or a freshly shucked oyster. I enjoy Bloody Marys with clam juice, so a martini with an oyster was a logical progression. It was good – the cocktail sauce provided a mild bite and the oyster was a fun shooter at the finish, a combo that suggests this drink is the New England love child of a dirty martini and tequila. My companion’s Cucumber Lemon Drop ($10) with Absolut Citron, muddled cucumber and a splash of lemon juice was equally refreshing, although not nearly as fun.
It was tempting to fill our appetizer round with raw bar items, but journalistic obligation suggested that more traditional appetizers would be a better indicator of culinary creativity and execution. Our gut worked out well. The order of Oysters Rockefeller ($9) contained three large oysters with roasted fennel Parmesan cream, braised kale and Parmesan garlic crumbs. The mixture was nice and light, like an oyster topped with spinach dip rather than “baked and stuffed.” The Smoked Fish Plate ($13) consisted of smoked trout pate, smoked tuna vinaigrette and smoked salmon accompanied by crispy capers, a goat cheese crouton, thin-sliced red onion and mixed olive relish. Everything was incredibly fresh, with the trout so especially moist, cool and mild that I would’ve sworn it had just swam onto my plate. The olive relish was another standout, and would’ve made an excellent spread for a breadbasket. In lieu of bread, however, we were served homemade chips seasoned with salt, pepper and paprika that made for a nice palate cleanser in between courses.
The choices for heartier fare are somewhat broad, but not deep. There are three entrees and two sandwiches on the menu, with occasional nightly specials. From the menu, we tried the Scallops ($24) with toasted couscous, roasted butternut squash, braised kale with bacon and onions and fall apple agrodolce (very light sweet and sour sauce). We also tried that night’s special, Miso Sesame Cod ($21) with pistachio risotto, peas and carrots. The two dishes shared identical highlights: great textures and mild pops of flavor that did not overpower the star of the show – perfectly cooked, fresh seafood. It’s hard to imagine going to Bristol Oyster Bar and not eating seafood, but if you’re a fan of their Facebook page you’ve noticed that many of their meat specials look just as appetizing.
With the last snow piles gone by the time you read this, the restaurant may have launched outdoor seating. You won’t have a waterfront view like other places in town, but as far as your taste buds and stomach are concerned, you’ll be sailing on Mount Hope Bay
Bristol Oyster Bar
448 Hope Street
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