Raising the (Raw)Bar Amen Street makes the oyster their world
Sometimes unexpected long rains give restaurants fits, because precipitation doesn't lend itself the kind of predictability that management craves. Showers can bring mad rushes on a lazy Tuesday afternoon, bringing in the dampened masses that ordinarily would wander the streets of our fair city, or they can kill off a seemingly steady lunch shift free of surprises, turning a dining room into a ghost town.
The former of the preceding sentence was indeed the case at Amen Street on East Bay Street the day I came to visit. General Manager Don Goodemote was behind the bar, helping out as managers do in a pinch, mixing drinks and expediting orders. Ah, the bar. The lovely white marble bar. I digress. Chef Stephen Ollard joined Goodemote to chat about the mission of Amen Street, a mission that is laden with the fruits of the sea, and in particular, the oyster. There were three dozen points of origin on the menu, from Alabama Gulf waters to Cape Spear in New Brunswick. Chincoteague, Virginia and Fanny Bay, British Columbia are also represented, and based on availability and freshness, a handful of these choices made up the Huitres du Jour. This was looking suspiciously like a wine list. I asked Chef Ollard if this was on purpose.
"We treat it like wine. Each oyster has a terroir (native locale) as each wine does. We let people sample oysters like they would sample wine…the oyster list that we carry, most people have not tried these oysters."
Curious patrons are in for an education as the list changes. Goodemote noted that, as with wine, the region where an oyster is harvested has a lot to do with its characteristics.
"A lot of [customers] come in and just think an oyster is an oyster is an oyster, as something from northern Virginia is going to be different from southern Virginia, even something from Georgetown (SC) is going to be different from the Folly River."
Could wines and oysters be paired? "Oh, I think that could certainly happen," said Ollard. "Other than the South (re: the Gulf oysters), the wine-producing regions are oyster-producing regions; in Oregon, some are produced in California, and Washington, so, yeah, you could pair wines and oysters from the same regions…some of the oysters have such complexity that not only can the wine enhance the oysters, but the oysters can enhance the wine."
Back to the bar aspect. If the oysters provide the "raw" in raw bar, the seemingly endless white marble and wooden platform is but one facet of the essence of the establishment that puts the "bar" in raw bar. There is no shortage of televisions, a full complement of liquors (including the locally produced Virgil Kaine ginger-infused bourbon) and craft beers are available, and an uncompromisingly casual feel to the dining room validated my hypothesis that a dozen oysters on a bed of snowy ice had supplanted the role that a dozen chicken wings would play at any sports bar on the peninsula.
Given its address on East Bay Street, the veritable epicenter of Charleston cuisine, I asked Ollard about the execution of a possible duality of Amen Street's plan: can you keep up with the Joneses in the immediate vicinity while carving out a niche of your own?
"I think we're doing both…seafood is something that is a staple in Charleston anyway, and that's what we do, so we have to…on not just a quarterly, monthly, yearly, but on a daily basis, not just keep up, but pass them and raise the bar, and make them keep up with us."
With the surging interest in the "farm-to-table" concept around Charleston's kitchens, a parallel was drawn between farm-to-table and Ollard's preference for his restaurant, only the key words there were "sustainable" and "fresh".
"We are a fish and raw bar — we want the fish to shine, we want the oysters to shine. I don't adulterate the food that much … it's just fresh."
Simplicity like that will get you everywhere. Then this question: is it more important to reinvent the seared red snapper or black grouper dish in a unique fashion, or would you rather use a unique fish that few have heard of (today it was orange marlin) to drive the originality of the menu? As expected, Ollard approached the fork in the road, and took the fork:
"It's both. I personally get more excited about a fish I've never heard of before. [Orange marlin] is a fish I had never heard of until a few years ago, and now I can't get enough of it … I'm also very classic in technique and my mindset, and there are staples that when people come to Charleston, they want … a menu that will stay inside the box."