Love is Shell

On a recent trip to The Old Cutler Oyster Co. & Raw Bar in South Miami, my dining (and driving) companion and I took a wrong turn and wound up on a dark stretch of Krome Avenue. The trip was a little spooky and so, by the time we got back to the lights of civilization, I had conjured up a rather rustic image of the restaurant in my mind - a weathered shack on the water, maybe with picnic tables inside. It was something of a surprise, then, that in reality the place exists in a newish commercial strip, the Old Cutler Towne Center. The inside, with its tile floor, colorful fish plaques and team pennants on the walls, and ubiquitous TV sets, does nothing to combat that strip-mall atmosphere. So much for backwater charm.

Despite the not-so-unusual surroundings, my disappointment faded quickly. In a town with an abundance of friendly neighborhood taverns where food takes a back seat to libations, the Oyster Co. is a notable exception - good, fresh seafood, served in a friendly atmosphere, but not so exorbitantly priced as to send you plummeting back into the depths of recession (or even depression). Evidently, the idea of such a restaurant is an appealing one, and the place is jammed. We were there on a weekend and so experienced the full effect: wall-to-wall people enjoying dinner and live music.

Most seafood spots worth their steamers rely on freshness, and this one is no exception. But there's more here than the run-of-the-mill raw bar items. While the restaurant looks utilitarian and ordinary, the kitchen exhibits a sophistication that would turn Mrs. Paul green with envy. Preparations vary, and different seafood offerings can be ordered blackened, barbecued, broiled in white wine, herbs, and lemon juice, charbroiled, or even parmigiana style - sauteed, then baked in a spicy tomato sauce with green peppers and onions, smothered with melted cheese.

There are even options for those who feel about seafood the way George Bush feels about broccoli. Pastas, burgers, chicken dishes, and barbecue baby-back ribs complete the main part of the menu, but the Oyster Co. also features an extraordinary number of bar items, soups, salads, and munchies. Wash down a beer with nachos, potato skins, conch fritters, or about a million other tidbits. On Sundays, the Oyster Co. even serves breakfast, with the most expensive item - Eggs Biscayne Bay, two poached eggs served over steamed shrimp and covered with hollandaise, with grits or potatoes - costing only $6.95.

Like many consumers who suffer from sticker shock when shopping in department stores, my dining companion has become almost catatonic because of Miami menu prices. So it added immeasurably to his enjoyment of the meal (not to mention my own) that the prices were not as outrageous as they have become at so many local restaurants. Florida lobster and stone crab are the only items at market price; otherwise $12.95 is the top dollar for a full dinner. Potatoes, cole slaw, and garlic toast accompany seafood entrees, and pasta dishes are served with a salad and garlic bread.

A flyer on our table listed market conditions of various sea creatures ("clams, Indian River, Florida area, excellent"), mentioned the lack of lobster that evening, and gave the prices for stone crab: they ranged from $6.95 for an appetizer to $21.95 for a dinner, with several options in between. The Oyster Co. even features a happy-hour special, with 99-cent stone crabs Monday through Saturday.

We started with an order of a half-dozen steamed oysters and a cup of conch chowder. The oysters - from the gulf area in Louisiana and in "good" condition according to the tip sheet - were on the smallish side but delicious, with a homemade cocktail sauce heavy on the horseradish. An extra oyster was added to the plate, perhaps to make up for the diminutive size of the shellfish. The inferior chowder, a sludgelike morass, was so full of tomato paste that we couldn't taste the oversize chunks of potato or the undersize morsels of conch. Next time we'll try the chili.

Nothing was truly memorable until the entrees arrived. My companion's grouper was a large, plump fillet with a light coating of barbecue sauce. Barbecued fish is tricky: too much or too strong a sauce can destroy the distinctive sweet flavor of the grouper. But in this case the execution of the dish was nothing short of masterful. The sauce, a subtle blend of piquant and sweet tastes, in no way overpowered the moist and tasty grouper, and the combination was an excellent one. My stone crabs were among the best I have ever eaten. Clearly these were not long out of the water, and they were firm, meaty, and every bit the taste sensation Floridians boast of. The accompanying mustard sauce was tart with lime, and perfectly complemented the claws. With such delectable main dishes, the French fries and cole slaw served with the meals seemed superfluous.

I wouldn't dream of following something as unique to South Florida as stone crabs with anything less than a slice of key lime pie, and the Oyster Co. didn't let me down. With its flaky crust and whiter-shade-of-pale filling, the delicacy nearly caused my lips to pucker. Let heretics turn to the restaurant's other sweets - strawberry cheesecake, chocolate cake, hot-fudge or strawberry sundaes - but I was more than happy to indulge in a little jingoism on behalf of the Sunshine State. The Old Cutler Oyster Co. can even make dining in Miami a palatable experience.

20535 Old Cutler Rd; 233-3064. Hours: Sunday - Wednesday from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m.; Thursday - Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m.

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