Friday, July 17, 2009

Bytown Bivalves

taps, oysters, turntable fig. a: l-r: taps, oysters, turntable

Taps, oysters, turntable. What more do you need?

How about a seriously outstanding kitchen, first-rate, sustainably harvested seafood that's sourced in-house, and friendly, knowledgeable service? Or how about a place that runs its own sustainable oyster & fish store, wholesales their seafood to local restaurants, and hosts an annual oyster festival?

Sound too good to be true? Well, believe it.

And just where is this oyster oasis, this seafood sanctuary? Ottawa. That's right, Ottawa, at a cozy little place called The Whalesbone on Bank Street.

Yes, Montreal is a couple of hundred kilometers closer to the Atlantic, yes, Montreal sits on the St-Lawrence Seaway, and, yes, there's no shortage of good seafood in this town. But exceptional seafood? Those places you can count on one hand. And, I'm sorry, but there's nothing in Montreal that resembles The Whalesbone. For years now, we've been praying for someone to open a straight-up raw bar here in Montreal. Nothing fancy, just a simple counter, a knowledgeable staff, and plenty of supremely fresh seafood. Something along the lines of this. To this day, our prayers have gone unanswered. Why? Who knows... It's just another one of the Mysteries of Montreal.

But we've got to hand it to these Whalesbone people--not only are they talented, but they're smart, too. They've got the oyster house, they've got the oyster & seafood supply, they've got the oyster festival, and they cater a helluva lot of oyster parties (think embassies, think government office parties, think corporate office parties...). Talk about a business plan.

I'd gotten my first taste of The Whalesbone's magic on a business trip back in May, and it left such a powerful impression that I promised Michelle I'd take her there just as soon as I could. Two weeks ago, when I had to go back to Ottawa to do some research,

montreal by night fig. b: Montreal by night

I made good on my promise. What did we have? Well, we got two small platters of oysters (we balked at the Shucker's Choice, found that one just wasn't enough, and we came this close to getting a third, bringing us up to 18, and just asking our friendly neighborhood shucker to cut us the Shucker's Choice price retroactively), consisting of Colville Bays (P.E.I.), Eel Lakes (N.S.), and St. Simons (N.B.). The Whalesbone had an impressive assortment of sauces and condiments to go along with the oysters, including an incendiary Scotch Bonnet pepper sauce and some 12-year-old Scotch, but these oysters were so good, so totally evocative of the Maritime waters from which they were harvested, that we kept things simple (Michelle likes a bit of lemon, I take the occasional dash of Tabasco, and we both love freshly grated horseradish [see below]).

oysters fig. c: oyster platter*

Then we moved straight into our mains: Michelle got the hand-picked Qualicum Beach (B.C.) scallops with garlic scapes, the creamiest white navy beans, double smoked bacon, bitter greens, and maple (A+); while I got the Catch of the Day, which was an absurdly good combination of lobster, scallops, halibut, and wild mushrooms (A+). And we topped things off by dipping into their brilliant sundaes bar (one scoop for $7, two for $8, three for $9, and tons of great homemade toppings, like boozy strawberries, butterscotch, and artisanal honey). All this plus a nice selection of ice-cold Ontario microbrews on tap, and some choice tunes (Jackie Mittoo, The Band) on the turntable (no ipod here). Actually, now that I think about it, our friendly neighborhood shucker was doing some serious multitasking--not only was he furiously shucking platter after platter of oysters all night long, not only was he indulging the two of us with repartee, but he was also our friendly neighborhood bartender/friendly neighborhood DJ.

The Whalesbone Oyster House, 430 Bank Street, Ottawa, (613) 231-8569

Whalesbone Sustainable Oyster & Fish Supply, 504A Kent Street, Ottawa, (613) 231-3474


*This was not one of our oyster platters--we were too busy diving into ours to take pictures.


rich (them apples) said...

That sort of place is a real find, and you're right it's a great business plan. Will people ever tire of an oyster? Will oysters ever go out of fashion? I think not. It's got me seriously thinking!

A new fishmonger has just opened up close by, and the excitement this has caused amongst the local foodies has been palpable. The place is magnificent - sleek and modern with a big wet fish counter laden down with the best of the North Sea. Seafood brings out the best in the food lover. It's a truly decadent display, but no bar, no restaurant, nothing to come close to The Whalesbone.

The thing I love most about these places is the staff. It's great to see a person who loves what he or she does, knows the subject inside out and is passionate about it. You can't teach that to somebody, and it lifts a great business way above the rest.

Now, I really fancy oysters for dinner. I've got a Saturday morning mission...

aram said...

It was your blog that encouraged me to start blogging and yours is still one that I return again and again. Thank you!