October 22, 2014

Seabear Oyster Bar Succeeds in its Small-Plates Mission

Grub Notes

Photo Credit: Randy Schafer

One of the things that kept me motivated while I was in my third trimester of pregnancy—a state of being that has since been remedied and was responsible for the break in your regularly scheduled Grub Notes coverage—was the thought that soon I would be able to consume raw oysters and frozen negronis at Seabear Oyster Bar (297 Prince Ave., #10, 706-850-4367).

Patrick Stubbers, Chris Luken and Peter Dale, all of The National, among other projects, joined forces to renovate the space in the Bottleworks right across from Viva Argentine and Hendershot’s. Previously occupied by a bakery and a coffee shop, the premises are not large, but Seabear makes good use of them, and the renovations are thoughtful and lovely, of a piece with the eatery’s general approach. The bar takes up about half the dining area, which is appropriate.

Really, you should think of Seabear as a bar at which you can get a bite to eat rather than as a seafood restaurant. The menu is small and encourages snacking, with only one traditionally sized entrée, and the drinks are a serious point of emphasis. Filling up on oysters is next to impossible, even with a fat wallet, but your best bet to give it a go is to hit Seabear between 3–6 p.m., when all of its beauteous bivalves are priced at $1.50 each during "oyster happy hour." You can at least order one of each of its selections without feeling quite so guilty about what you’re spending.

The oyster menu changes every day, and the staff says they can easily go through 750 oysters on a good night. These aren’t the kind of oysters you top with cheese and broil or bread and fry. You might be lucky enough to sample Cannery Points, from Washington state, which have a distinct, clean, sweet flavor of cucumber at the end, or Sweet Jesuses, from Maryland, which are mild and delicate.

Barnstables, from Massachusetts, are intense and take you on a little rollercoaster as they hit salt, sweet and bitter notes. Moonstones, from Rhode Island, taste like cold, clear brine. There are no duds in the bunch, and you can have a lot of fun comparing terroirs as you chomp happily. They come with little thimbles of cocktail sauce, should you need it, and a nice mignonette that helps as a palate cleanser.

The small-plates emphasis of the rest of the menu means it’s easy to spend a chunk of change in a hurry, but you could also stop in for a perfect grilled-cheese sandwich, made with sharp cheddar on thick-cut bread from Independent Baking Co. and topped with a perfect slice of tomato and a single bread-and-butter pickle, both pinned to the exterior with a toothpick. Satisfying, especially paired with a beer, and focused on simple pleasures, it mirrors Seabear’s emphasis on doing a few things and doing them well.

There’s nothing crazy about the seared okra served in cast-iron, paired with cherry tomatoes and garlic aioli and seasoned with Old Bay, and that’s just how it should be. Honestly, even the tomatoes could be seen as extraneous to the point of the dish, which is that okra is wonderful stuff. The green bean salad is one of the highlights of the menu, dressed with horseradish and creme fraiche and studded with jewel-like smoked trout roe. Slow down while you’re eating it and make sure you pop the roe between your teeth, lest you miss the delight of a burst of smoke flavor in combination with the sharp horseradish. 

The beer-braised Beeler’s bratwurst is good but not transcendent, but the fried chicken leg, served over pickled napa cabbage, calls to mind Portland’s Pok Pok in its combination of meaty chicken, crisp fatty skin, finely chopped peanuts and a sauce with hints of mirin. It’s salty and sweet and juicy and briny, all at once, a great and smart take on bar food. The crispy scallion pancake, topped with wonderful sweet rock crab and micro-greens, has a faint heat that builds as you work your way through it and is likewise a thing you should eat. Dessert (Key lime pie and flourless chocolate cake) is profoundly un-hip but not, alas, as good as the savory stuff.

The drinks list is intelligent, quirky and fun, from the limited-edition Creature Comforts cucumber-lime gose (yowza!) to the aforementioned negroni slushy, which will convert even the bitter-phobic with its wonderful texture and clear flavors, to a punch that combines Blackwell Jamaican rum, cognac, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, peach brandy and green tea. There is much to explore, especially if you have a taste for sours and Belgian brews.

The staff is eager to discuss what you might like, offering a sample of Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome Ale with friendly zeal and conversing knowledgeably on the benefits of flutes versus coupes for champagne service (you can get either sort of glass). Seabear is open from 3 p.m.–midnight every day, takes credit cards and has a few tables outside as well as inside.