When it comes to the consumption of raw oysters in restaurants, freshness isn’t just a nuance that distinguishes the good from the bad. Freshness is a critical, indispensable, all-important attribute of this seemingly simple, self-contained dish.
If the oysters are fresh, you can expect your meal to be followed by a pleasant afterglow as you savour their cool, crisp, creamy flavours. If they’re not fresh? Clear the decks, lock the bathroom door and prepare for an agonizing case of stomach cramps accompanied by cold sweats, fever and projectile vomiting.
There is simply no fooling around with oysters and freshness. Which is why the Fanny Bay Oyster Bar seems like such a solid concept. Vancouver’s first vertically integrated tide-to-table oyster restaurant opened in June, almost a year after local health authorities issued a five-week ban on raw B.C. oysters in restaurants.
The new Cambie Street restaurant and shellfish market is owned by Fanny Bay Oysters, a B.C. shellfish farming and exporting company that was acquired in 2007 by the Washington-based Taylor Shellfish Family of Farms (which operates three similarly integrated oysters bars in Seattle).
The oysters here are as fresh as can be. They’re raised in one of Fanny Bay’s four farms along the B.C. coast. They’re processed at the company’s own CFIA-registered facility on Vancouver Island, ensuring the traceability of each and every bivalve. And they’re delivered straight to the restaurant, where you also buy the shucked meat in various sized containers to take home (along with other smoked and packaged seafood products).
And Fanny Bay, the restaurant, does a great job of serving raw oysters. The bar offers a decent selection of different oyster brands from the various farms within both companies on both sides of the border. They’re well priced, especially during happy hour (from 3 to 6 p.m.), when the big, meaty and minerally beach-raised Fanny Bays are sold for a buck a shuck. The accompanying mignonettes are light and bright. The subtly spicy apple cider is particularly good.
The shuckers are skilled professionals who properly crack the shells and loosen the meat without mangling the bellies or leaving any gritty bits behind. They work fast. They’re friendly. And the bar, surrounded by long, communal high top tables, has a fun, lively vibe.
But perhaps Fanny Bay should stick to what it knows best – oysters. Because many of the other dishes ranged from merely okay to truly disgusting.
The okay items included ceviche, which is made with a decent variety of clean, fresh tautly cured fish and shellfish (ling cod, prawns, scallops). The light lime, red onion and pineapple dressing tasted bright at first, but lingered with a funky finish of musty, dried herbs. The tomato-based seafood chowder, on the other hand, was thick and generously portioned with seafood, but blandly spiced with not enough herbs.
Fried oysters were thickly battered in a dark, brown breadcrumb crust that was a tad overcooked. Steamed mussels were served in a slickly buttery dill-and-garlic broth and came with a side of fries that were a bit hard and undercooked.
The smoked seafood platter looked like it was thrown together with a few products off the market shelves (oysters, peppery salmon), with an oddly sweet house-made salmon pâté that tasted like salad cream, boxed crackers, cold grilled baguette slices and pickled beets so sourly tart they elicited a coughing fit.
The okay dishes were all good enough for a house party, perhaps. But from a restaurant kitchen, they lacked polish. The bad dishes – fish and chips so greasy the oil-clogged beer batter was dripping and foul-smelling geoduck sashimi – were inedible.
Geoduck is a tough sell. When intact in its shell, the oversized clam looks like an elephant penis. But when finely shaved in paper-thin slices, the nearly transparent white meat has a slightly chewy texture and a clean briny flavour that tastes like a gulp of fresh ocean water. Or at least that is what it is supposed to taste like when it’s fresh. When it’s not fresh, sliced geoduck shrivels up into tough, grey curds and smells like rotting sardines left out in the sun.
Fresh oysters may be essential to a good oyster bar, but so is the freshness of everything else. Go to Fanny Bay for the oysters. Skip the rest.Report Typo/Error