Don't Eat It Raw

The Old Cutler Oyster Co. & Raw Bar (O.C.'s to its many fans) may be the most delayed comeback story in the annals of Hurricane Andrew lore. The family-style seafood restaurant was a five-year-old storefront in the Old Cutler Towne Center before being leveled by the big wind. When Doc Graham's Taproom & Eatery took over the spot and rebuilt it, O.C.'s looked to be permanently gone. But this past June the restaurant finally appeased the demon of oyster demand by reopening -- nearly three years later -- in Cutler Ridge.

The long hiatus apparently hasn't affected the business's popularity. Big as a cave and twice as chilly, the place was packed when I visited, but our party was seated immediately. (With so much square footage, you'd be hard-pressed not to find a chair.) The dining room features glass-topped tables framing nautical charts, mounted fish, maritime artwork, and big-screen televisions -- which in the end held our attention better than the meal.

The motto here is "Where the Cape meets the Keys," and that's appropriate enough. Menu items cover the Eastern seaboard, from New England clam chowder to cioppino "Key West Style." Raw oysters in warm-water summer months, however, are not appropriate, so we ordered the house specialty in fried form. (The back of O.C.'s menu kindly includes an oyster warning for those who suffer from liver, blood, or immune disorders.) A dozen oysters were shelled, dipped in batter, and deep-fried to a likable crunch, though their small size prevented them from achieving that buttery texture usually associated with cooked oysters. Scattered on a platter with lemon for garnish, they languished in a gray funk. Absolution was found in a particularly good cocktail sauce -- heavy on the horseradish -- and a flavorful tartar sauce. French fries and homemade cole slaw can be added to the order for an extra buck.

Steamed with beer and spices, the peel-and-eat shrimp, are offered in four different styles: chilled, Cajun, garlic, and Southwestern. We tried a quarter-pound (a half-pound order is also an option) of the Southwestern style, which was served in a bowl, drenched with a cilantro-chili butter. The freshness of these medium-size shrimp was evident, but the herb-spice mixture added little flavor. And the long bath in butter robbed the shrimp of their natural sweetness while pumping their cholesterol content off the charts. (It also made them as slippery as wet boat shoes.)

The Buffalo wings were sadly disappointing. We requested a batch of ten, medium-spicy, with a dish of hot sauce on the side. The sauce never appeared, and the blue cheese dressing for the accompanying celery sticks showed up only after we asked twice. The light spray of sauce on the wings was tangy and peppery, but the poultry itself was cold and tough.

Nostalgia for the teenage gastronomic mayhem of White Castle hamburgers prompted us to sample the Castle-style burgers. A pair was served with chips for $1.95. These were fun but hardly a bargain. Sliced as thin as luncheon meat and draped with a piece of American cheese the size and shape of a butter pat, the square meat was more ghost than flesh.

One of the starters caught our attention. A scoop of "locally smoked" fish spread, chunky with moist flakes of white and dark fish, had a deliciously mild and sweet flavor. The sesame flatbread that accompanied it, however, could have been more plentiful. We liked the spread so much we asked our server to tell us what was in it. She couldn't. She said she'd ask the kitchen. She didn't. Nor could she tell us the name of the bakery that supplied the desserts. Requests for water, napkins, and utensils were either ignored or delayed in fulfillment. She covered herself with lots of personality -- chatting amiably, calling us "dear," patting us on the back and shoulder until even the most girl-loving guy in my party shuddered when she approached. And while we appreciated the continuous exculpations that the kitchen was overwhelmed, it became clear that our server's timing was off when our entrees appeared before our appetizers were half-finished.

Poor timing could also account for the unpleasantly tepid temperature of a pound of Alaskan crab legs. The flesh was sweet, and it separated easily from the shell, but the real treats here, as with the other main courses, were the side dishes served with it. Parsley potatoes, perfectly cooked, were wonderful, and the creamy cole slaw could hold its own against that found in the best delicatessens.

A platter of "country-style" pork ribs was big and meaty. First marinated then grilled, the ribs were tough enough to require a predator's determined effort. Herby and good, the Italian dressing animated the accompanying house salad (a prototypical mix of lettuces and zucchini, cucumber, carrot, and tomato). And the barbecue sauce was consistent with our findings to that point: O.C.'s may fall down in several areas of food preparation, but its sauces, condiments, and dressings are all pleasantly perky.

A dish of cracked conch was tender enough, but the menu description didn't prepare us for another Buffalo-style dish. Breaded and fried conch was doused with the same pepper sauce we'd sampled on the chicken wings. Here, though, it overwhelmed the mild nature of the mollusk.

Fish sandwiches are frequently fried, but the kitchen was happy to broil me a piece of grouper, which turned out to be a hefty fillet, a good value at $4.95. The fish was tender and flaky. I requested yellow rice instead of the chips listed on the menu, but still got chips only. Another request for the rice yielded a dish of greasy and unappealing yellow kernels.

We hit bottom with the wine list, a skimpy offering of very few (and even fewer good) vintages. Beer selection is better and includes some microbrews from around the country. Just don't count on the table tent that advertises Pete's Wicked Ale: The bartender confided that O.C.'s no longer carries it.

Desserts were uniform slices of wasted calories. Key lime pie was tart to the point of bitter, and a chocolate cake had too much butter cream where fudge might have done better. But the Reese's peanut butter pie was something to phone home about; it was excellent and had a frothy, mousselike texture.

O.C.'s has the potential and the opportunity to rise a notch or two above mediocre. Some of the difficulties we encountered -- the cold food, the server's ignorance of the menu -- can be attributed to the newness of the place. Problems such as patronizing service can be corrected with proper training and good management. And failing that? Well, as Erin reminded us, hurricane season has barely begun.

Side Dish
When it comes to learning about wine, I've always passed along the advice that was given to me years ago: Forget courses, seminars, and tastings. Just experiment and drink the stuff. Note what you like, then drink it again. Over time you'll develop a reliable repertoire of favorite vineyards and vintages. Only problem is, if you're not a) an alcoholic, b) wealthy, or c) living somewhere other than the tropics, where wine is often improperly stored, that's a fairly long route.

Recently I discovered a terrifically helpful new educational tool: Vino! The Exciting Game of Wine, a trivia board game. The object is to enter the chateau in the middle of the board and be acknowledged as the "ultimate connoisseur." Getting there first is the trick. Questions range from the number of chateaus in France (more than 3000) to the most popular grape used for jelly in America (Concord) to the type of champagne served at British royal weddings (Bollinger). And those are the easy ones. It's lots of fun and you really do learn plenty. If you've got $40 to spare, you can order Vino! by calling 800-846-6386.

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