If, as Jonathan Swift once said, it was a bold man that first ate an oyster, then it was a courageous duo of women who reinvented it. Landing in the fifth spot on our hottest new restaurants list, Olympia Oyster Bar stands at the forefront of reinvention with owners and oyster connoisseurs Mellissa Mayer and Maylin Chavez at the helm.
Opened a short six months ago, Olympia Oyster Bar is a welcome addition to the hustle-and-bustle of flourishing Mississippi Avenue. A force unto itself, Mississippi Avenue boasts everything from a taxidermy shop to comic book stores and pubs. A classy new oyster bar lends itself well to the neighborhood’s eclectic nature.
Dreaming of Oysters
Formerly Beer City Bottle Shop, Olympia Oyster Bar got its start through the tenacity of Mayer’s vision and Chavez’s partnership. Originally from San Diego, the pair had food in their blood, and worked special events together, where they became fast friends.
Mayer had been angling to open an oyster bar for a long time, and it was finally on an “oyster adventure” in Paris that the pair became business partners. Upon their return to San Diego, they packed up and moved to Portland where they rapidly integrated themselves into the city’s burgeoning culinary scene.
Over time they met a number of Portland’s epicurean luminaries. One such relationship developed into a collaboration with Ryan Magarian, whose other Portland credits include Hamlet and Oven & Shaker. With his help, they developed a cocktail menu to compliment the oysters.
“Oysters are a classic, luxurious ingredient,” Chavez explains, “and because we do have a unique, out-of-the-box way of presenting them, we thought classic cocktails could balance them out.”
One such representation is the always appropriate Tom Collins, comprised of Ransom Old Tom Gin, freshly pressed lemon juice, simple syrup and soda water. A light drink, it balances well with some of the more exotic oyster preparations on the menu.
And worry not, exotic preparations don’t come in short supply. Knowing an oyster bar is a niche offering, Olympia Oyster Bar aims to provide oysters in preparations you won’t soon forget. “It’s about the oyster,” Mayer says without hesitation.
Reinventing the Oyster
In keeping the oyster front and center, the pair opted to stay away from heavy or rich preparations. “We want to get creative and playful, while still providing the oysters in their raw state,” says Chavez.
Their signature Kataifi crisped oyster does just that, standing as a testament to their playful whimsy without smothering the delicious oyster couched within its fried enclosure. Two oysters sit on a wooden plank, swathed in delicate strands of shredded and crisped phyllo. Delicately balanced atop the wispy creation rests a dab of smoked avocado puree and serrano jam. A sprinkling of morimoto dust and a micro cilantro garnish round out the carnival of flavors and textures. “That’s the starter one for people who don’t normally eat oysters,” Chavez says with a smile.
For those looking for something straight outta’ the half shell, yet still adventurous, the signature Kumquat preparation beckons. Three Chelsea Gem oysters arrive dressed with a pickled kumquat, blood orange elixir, serrano ginger, toasted amaranth and mint. Despite the wealth of ingredients, the oyster not only shines, but is elevated to another level. The finish on your palate is fresh, yet distinct.
Native to the South Puget Sound, hardy Chelsea Gems provide a great base for any number of creations. Despite their small size, they pack a big punch. Muscular in mouth-feel, they cut through their dressing with a mild brininess and subtly sweet flavor profile.
And Chelsea Gems are just one of a number of local oysters on the menu. Set astride the bar rests a large oyster well filled with oysters of all persuasions. Referred to by Mayer as “the baby,” the well was custom-fabricated by a local concrete company. Its design speaks to an image of the sea, grey waves cresting over oysters lying beneath the waves.
Celebrating Local Oysters
With such a selection at hand, why not go for the bivalve and indulge in a dozen of the Chef’s Selection? They arrive in traditional fashion, offering a full flavor adventure through the oysters of the Pacific Northwest.
Large Hama Hamas sit astride Summer Stones, one from the Hood Canal, which forms the western lobe of the Puget sound, and the other from Port Townsend Bay, at the extreme north end of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
As the name would suggest, Olympia Oyster Bar is proud to feature oysters native to the Pacific Northwest. “It’s a Pacific Coast brand with a lot of Pacific Northwest oysters,” says Mayer.
True to their Pacific Northwest surroundings, they go out of their way to do business directly with the farmers cultivating the oysters. “When we got here, we immediately began cultivating relationships with farmers in Washington,” says Chavez.
Today, Olympia Oyster Bar continues to source directly from local farmers. “We want to make sure the oysters we are choosing are sustainably cultured and harvested,” Mayer asserts.
With a large, communal-style dining room, outdoor seating, and a casual atmosphere, Olympia Oyster Bar provides a comfortable setting to have a cocktail or glass of wine and laugh with friends over an unapologetic amount of delicious and wonderfully prepared oysters.
While we thank the bold man who ate the first oyster, we must give ultimate credit to the intrepid women who reinvented it. Stop in to see what new creations they’ve dreamt up next time you’re strolling along Mississippi Avenue.
Olympia Oyster Bar is located at 4214 Mississippi Avenue in Portland, Oregon. For menu information, click or tap here. They can be reached at 503.841.6316 and are open daily from 4:00pm to 10:00pm. On Sunday and Monday, they open at 11:30am.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is longtime journalist and blogger with over twelve years of professional writing experience. After a long career as an entertainment and political columnist, William now spends his time expounding on Portland restaurants, Portland plays and Android smartphone apps. When he isn’t writing or eating, then writing about eating, expect him to be outside enjoying the natural splendors of his home in the great Pacific Northwest.