Cafe Reviews

Mollusk Massacre

Everyone remembers their first time . . . eating raw oysters, that is. Why, this garrulous gourmand was but a callow underclassman at UNC-Chapel Hill, when during a fall break I was invited to an oyster shuck thrown by some rowdy fellows with whom I shared courses. With kegs flowing freely, bevies of coeds about, and bushels of oysters and clams on hand, it wasn't long before the crowd was filled to bursting with shellfish and brew. The last thing I recall before blacking out was reenacting John Belushi's penultimate scene in Animal House where, dressed as a pirate, he swings across a street on a ripped banner, 'cept I was in my boxers using someone's curtains to perform the feat.

When sunlight peeled back my eyelids the next day, I lay in a pile of oyster shells, my pants nowhere to be found. The walk home to my dorm was long and chilly. Plus, a legion of leprechauns had apparently used my tongue as a bath towel, and then made a trampoline of my cranium. Took me nearly 48 hours to recover completely.

With all apologies to Proust's ghost, such was my remembrance of things past upon crossing the threshold of Nantucket Seafood and Raw Bar, the briny odor of newly halved bivalves in the air. Brad and Mikey had informed me of this four-month-old establishment in the well-heeled Scottsdale Promenade near Sushi on Shea, and suggested that it would be an excellent place for me to review -- especially since you can practically stagger to their pad from it after consuming mass quantities of seafood and firewater. That's an important point for Mikey, as he's wont to have one too many Grey Goose cocktails before hopping in his black Lexus and braving the kindness of the local gendarmes.

There's little in the way of atmosphere at Nantucket. Low, jet tables and chairs, populated by drink menus and candles. A black marble-topped bar faces a steel sink where mollusks are prepared. Above this is a large board offering sandwiches, cocktails, salads and some pasta dishes made with the fundamentals: shrimp, crab, clams. Nantucket's lobster-shellfish logo takes up the better part of one wall. On the other, there are a few black-and-whites of fishing meccas such as Martha's Vineyard, Gloucester Lighthouse and so on. Curtainless glass panes look out onto the parking lot.

Not exactly romantic environs, but then, through its simplicity, owner Fred Guaragna aims to replicate the stark, no-frills oyster bars of San Francisco, New York or Boston. There, being near the water, such graceless interiors with little more than a counter and some stools possess their own je ne sais quoi. In these establishments, the food's the thing, and it's with the food that Guaragna's eatery is at its best. As the beefy, bearded, cigar-toting Guaragna says, "If you want frills, this ain't the place." However, if you want a seafood fix, Guaragna, who began shucking oysters professionally in San Fran when he was 16, is most definitely your man.

We started our meal with crab cakes and clam chowder, accompanied by a huge chunk of sliced sourdough. Unlike most places where you get more cake than crab, Nantucket's crab cakes are the opposite, with patties of shredded crab held together with a slight batter of egg and breadcrumbs, and lightly fried a delicate, golden brown. Served three to a plate atop a mound of fresh coleslaw, they were easily the highlight of our repast. As for the chowder, I'm afraid I found fault with it. The taste was superb, with slices of mushrooms, chunks of potatoes and fresh clam, but the milky broth they came in was far too soupy pour moi. I like my chowder so thick and hearty you can plaster your walls with it, but perhaps I shouldn't be so persnickety. After the problem McCormick and Schmick's allegedly had with their clam chowder in Irvine, California (ahem, garçon, is there a prophylactic in my soup?), this criticism seems rather mild by comparison.

Next, we had our waiter, an enterprising chap from Cambridge, rustle us up half a dozen bluepoint oysters on the half-shell, followed by a half-dozen Hood Canals. Often, oysters are named for the area they come from, and the great debate is over East Coast vs. West Coast, just as with the rappers of yore. (Remember the death of this corpulent critic's fave, East Coaster Notorious B.I.G.? And before that, West Coaster Tupac.) Bluepoints originally came from Blue Point, Long Island, but the term is now used more generically for a certain type of smaller, East Coast oyster. Hood Canals hail from Washington state, and are larger and creamier, with more water in them. Brad and I were partial to the bluepoints, but Mikey, always the contrarian, claimed to adore the Hood Canals. As for me, I just didn't enjoy that squirt of H2O you get if you bite into a Hood.

We also tried a platter or two of Hurricane Coves, which, according to Guaragna, come from Massachusetts. These were similar to bluepoints in taste, but larger. All three of us took a liking to these, but since I've been to Nantucket, I tend to stick to the bluepoints. They slide down so easily, and they have an appealing taste that's not too redolent of the ocean. Also, I find that the larger one goes with oysters, the more likely the comparisons to unfortunate nasal substances.

With the clams, the choice is not as complicated: either littlenecks or topnecks, and both kinds come from a number of places on the East Coast. (Nantucket's doesn't carry colossal Cherrystones, big as a man's fist.) Littlenecks, as the name indicates, are smaller than topnecks, but I believe these have a sweeter, slightly more intense flavor, though I'm told they're basically the same clam, different size.

Guaragna ships in his shellfish daily, and it is so fresh that you don't need the house-made cocktail sauce or the side of horseradish that's included. But my palate does backflips for horseradish mixed with that crimson condiment, and I used plenty. After downing more of these fruits of the sea than a trio of walruses, we found ourselves still, curiously, peckish. To remedy this, we shared two thick sandwiches, one of Dungeness crab, and one of Bay shrimp, as well as a bowl of Sicilian-style crab, a specialty of the house. The sandwiches hit the spot, but opinion was divided on the Sicilian-style crab, loath though I am to show displeasure with anything or anyone Sicilian. The crab came drenched in oil, vinegar and spices, and I found it too spicy for someone of my Protestant upbringing. Well, not that it was really too spicy, but the mixture of spices seemed to disagree with me. Nevertheless, I'd still recommend it to intrepid noshers.

Nantucket offers a limited list of beer, wine and martinis, and this is something Guaragna should work on. The restaurant has difficulty getting Snottsdalians to belly up to the barstool, but a better selection of beers might help. I'm not suggesting he turn the place into an alehouse, but rather install a couple of taps in addition to the two or three he has and see what happens. Also, beefing up the wine list couldn't hurt. Traditionally, one's supposed to enjoy oysters with Chablis, so why the meager offerings in that department? Though no other hard alcohol was on hand, the place does possess all the good vodkas (Mikey was pleased and punch drunk by the time we left) with which to make a mean Maratini.

Finally, there's the ambiance, or lack thereof. I know this shtick works in places with harbors and sea gulls, but by Job's pajamas, we're in the bleedin' desert, bucko! We want some escapism when we pay more than $20 per person eating out. And a photo of some old sea dog holding a flounder and smokin' a corncob pipe don't cut it. As with my suggestions per the alcohol situation, you don't have to go nuts and have your servers dress like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, but some sawdust on the floor and simple red-and-white-checked tablecloths would work wonders. Nail a starfish or two to the wall and put up curtains or screens so we can forget for a moment that we're in a Scottsdale strip mall filled with Beamers and Benzes.

As far as sheer consumption goes, Nantucket's is almost as tight as Meg Ryan's new face-lift. Now, if the place were to put one-tenth of its effort into the decor, it could have a whale of a time in the shellfish business.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons