Every year for my birthday (which is right around now) I do the same thing. I invite my closest friends for dinner, and I spend the day cooking an elaborate multicourse meal. (Actually, that’s a lie. I spend the week – every night after work – cooking and prepping the meal.) No presents are allowed. The menu of the dinner and the fun of cooking it is all the gift I need.
The menu changes every year (although I confess to chronically favouring the recipes of this newspaper’s Lucy Waverman) but there is one constant: Dinner always begins with a case of raw oysters (along with martinis) shucked at light speed by my young adult children. Yes, they are well trained.
Because oysters are the perfect food. Aphrodisiac or not, they are erotic in taste and texture, luxurious and, like diamonds, the epitome of glamour. (You can’t eat diamonds.)
Which is why we love oyster bars. One of the great things about an oyster bar is that it eliminates the awkward menu dance – the one where you don’t order seafood, because it’s always the most expensive thing on the menu.
You go to an oyster bar, everybody knows it’s for seafood.
Diana’s Oyster Bar is in a strip mall in Scarborough. It’s an unlikely location, amongst the falafel joints, but has much to recommend it. The prices are friendlier than for the same seafood downtown, and their seafood is reliably delightful. There is the usual panoply of raw oysters and clams on ice at the raw bar, which is black granite and quite sexy. The bivalves are impeccably fresh, the clams especially and superlatively sweet.
But given the simplicity of the raw oyster – sell it super fresh with some freshly grated horseradish and a good cocktail sauce – we tend to judge an oyster bar by its more complexly prepared seafood. Diana’s puts smoked-salmon custard – a veritable smoked-salmon cloud – in an eggshell perched on a cucumber nest, beside superb house-smoked salmon. Their crab cake is pure crab, assertively spiced, and New England clam chowder, for the excellent price of $8 a bowl, is big chunks of perfectly cooked fresh clams in light cream with carrots and potatoes. Among appetizers, only the oysters Rockefeller disappoint, being roofed in bland bread crumbs; the customary spinach and Pernod are MIA, the sauce tasteless.
One of the good things about Diana’s is that they run out of stuff every night. They take no reservations and they only keep enough seafood on hand for that evening’s dinner. Once it’s gone, you’re outta luck. Which bodes well for freshness.
Even that which is normally a home for old seafood – risotto – receives perfectly fresh lobster in sufficient quantity to impress. The risotto’s flavour is good, though we wish its texture were less soupy. We could use more of those fun frizzled leeks on top, and let’s lose the frozen peas.
This is a kitchen loyal to its seafood. They cook plain steamed lobster perfectly and serve it appropriately naked. Their grilled sea bream is perfectly cooked and also utterly fresh.
Their rendition of surf ‘n’ turf, a cliché usually anathema to seafood lovers, is often one of the best things on the menu. One day they have a surf ‘n’ turf special of pan-seared dry scallops with shredded lamb shank in crépinette. (Even I had to ask.) Crépinette in French cooking is a flattened sausage wrapped in caul fat. In Scarborough, it’s creamy pulled shank meat formed into a ball and wrapped in blanched Savoy cabbage, encircled by totally loveable dry scallops. Wet scallops, served at most restaurants, are treated with phosphate preservatives. During that treatment they absorb water, which makes them 1) less tasty and 2) less likely to brown during cooking. Diana’s dry scallops come with creamed lamb gravy and would be perfect were they not over-salted. The olive-oil-poached browned potatoes and fried leeks on top help a lot.
Almost enough to bring about forgiveness for their lousy service. The servers are offhand in the extreme. Nobody offers to take our coats. I ask for that. The server says yes … and walks away. When I ask questions about the menu I get a look of incomprehension. Precious few smiles are on offer.
It took two years for the family that runs Diana’s Seafood to turn the Baker’s Dozen Donuts shop and gas station behind their successful restaurant into the oyster bar, and it’s hard to imagine how they’re reconciling the heedless service with how much money they must have put into building the place. And they’re setting such high standards in the kitchen. Even cliché-sounding desserts such as phyllo-wrapped lemon cheesecake and chocolate pot de crème come out sounding better than they read, the cheesecake a lemony dream and the pot de crème a deep dark spoonful of satin. The room they built is nice too. It’s a small dining room in shades of grey with wood accents. Everything here is nice – except the servers. If it were my restaurant I’d be prowling the dining room every night looking for that kind of trouble – and preventing it.