It's possible to have a wonderful experience at a purportedly lousy restaurant and a dismal meal at a much beloved restaurant. This principle I take for granted and, lately, have had demonstrated for me.
For my last night of a recent stay with my daughter, Lydia, in New York, we went to the Grand Central Oyster Bar, lauded by many whose opinions I accept almost without qualification. As no one has yet devoted a thread to this place, I figured I might as well start one, even if it is on a sour note (and please, I welcome contrary data points, which I'm guessing will be abundant).
I really wanted to – and thought I would – like this place. Cavernous, old school, located in a train station and a century old, it seemed like this oyster bar had to be good, right?
Upon arriving, the general manager moved us directly to the back, right next to the servers' station, which I could have accepted had not he explained, as he lead us into the bowels, that it was "much cooler in the back." Then we got to the back, and he repeated "It's cooler back here. Can you feel it" I responded, reluctantly, "I suppose I could be convinced of that," though I felt absolutely no difference, though the manager's stare after that last comment of mine may have dropped the ambient temperature by a few degrees. He was bullshitting me about the desirability of an undesirable seat, and we both knew it.
Lydia does not like oysters, but frequently she will try one or two just in case she might, by chance, have a change of taste. I suggested she order kumamotos, as these seemed like good beginner's model oysters (frequently small, not too squishy). Turns out, they were out of kumamotos, so the waiter suggested malpeques, which he said were kind of like kumamotos. He also offered to pick out a half dozen other ones for me, and I said Fine.
Lydia did not like the malpeque. I ate one, and I have to admit, the taste seemed a bit off. Could be just me I thought. I asked our waiter for more bread: I really needed something to get the nasty taste of that first malpeque off my tongue.
No bread was forthcoming. I'd evidently made a mistake asking our waiter: bread-bringing seemed to be the province of one of the other servers. The Saloon area was, in fact, staffed by only three men: server, water man, bread man.
The oysters looked good, and contained not a bit of either shell shrapnel nor liquor – in fact, they didn't contain much of anything. The oysters seemed somewhat deflated, lifeless, basically a substandard selection that had maybe sat around a little longer than they should have I ended up not eating the last malpeque, as the last two I tasted were so vile. When the server asked if I wanted the remaining one, I confessed we didn't like it, to which he huarmphed and took it away.
Oysters Rockefeller were pretty good, with simple though light sauce, neither best nor worst I've had. Middling. I much prefer the same dish as served at Philander's in the old days (before they became Barclay's American Grille and stopped serving them: tragedy).
Lydia's scallops were good, but overall I'd have to give the Grand Central Oyster a just-passing grade.
A chef friend told me, in an Instagram response or maybe FB comment, that I should get the oyster pan roast, and I would have done that if I'd gotten the comment in time for ordering.
It's very possible we just hit this place on a bad night or under a bad sign. I believe in the veracity of my friends who say they've had good meals at this 100 year old place, but I wouldn't return again for at least another century.
Grand Central Oyster Bar
89 E 42nd St New York, NY 10017
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