I'm probably the last person who should advise you about eating oysters. Nevertheless, I'm still going to recommend a visit to DeMun Oyster Bar.
A brief but necessary prologue: For the longest time, an unfortunate encounter with a scallop had me convinced I was allergic to shellfish. It took twenty years — and a career that veered into food writing — to discover that a whiff, let alone a bite, of any bivalve wouldn't ruin a meal. Gradually I learned that not only could I eat each of these foods — I loved them all.
All, that is, except oysters. The almost-still-living rawness of the creature. The way it glistens in its liquor within its freshly shucked shell. This mental block I couldn't evade. And I say this as someone who thinks nothing of ordering a taco filled with pig esophagus, or kitfo, an Ethiopian dish that is essentially a pile of spiced raw ground beef.
That's how I've lived my life, ignorant of whatever bliss raw oysters can bring. Until DeMun Oyster Bar opened last December, and I faced a conundrum: Ignore a buzzed-about new restaurant or confront my fear.
Shuck it, said I.
Even for the oyster-averse, there are worse places to pass a pleasant evening. DeMun Oyster Bar, which occupies a prime corner spot in Clayton's placid DeMun neighborhood, is a gorgeous space, attractively dim, with an entire wall covered in antique mirrors, and a cool patterned-tile floor. The highlight must be the café windows, which open outward in temperate weather, turning the entire space into a patio.
The bar, a semicircle, dominates the single room. The bartenders are on full display, a whirl of cocktail shaking and bitters dashing. Behind them, on a raised platform, stands the shucker and your dinner arrayed before him on a bed of ice. Tables are crammed around the bar, and when the restaurant is busy — especially when the café windows are closed — things can get cozy.
DeMun Oyster Bar has its oysters shipped daily from the Pacific Northwest. (To those concerned about food miles and carbon footprints: Now you know. Then again, if you're going to eat oysters in Missouri, well, there you go.) The menu offers detailed descriptions of the flavor, texture and even the shape and depth of the shell of the varieties most commonly flown in, but the roster varies from day to day.
The oysters available on your visit are listed on a chalkboard to one side of the bar — though between the colors of the chalk used and the dim lighting, it can be impossible to read this without standing directly in front of it. On my visit, servers' knowledge of the day's catch was hit-or-miss.
For that matter, service in general is spotty, and sometimes brusque. A note to servers: If someone asks about a dish that was ordered and seems to have been forgotten, the correct response, even if true, isn't, "I'll check in back, just in case it's hanging around there." (Also, in the interest of full disclosure: I know DeMun's bar manager, Chad Michael George, and on my second visit there was a definite uptick in the level of service. Coincidence? I think not.)
After waiting so long to try an oyster, I've now spoiled myself for life. Yes, I went right for the famed Kumamoto oyster. These particular specimens hailed from Humboldt Bay, California. Lifted from their small, deep shells, they packed a mighty punch: a blast of pure ocean sweetness, without any brine, and a texture that can only be described as silken. I could have eaten a dozen of these beauts. Therein lies DeMun's biggest drawback: Impeccably fresh oysters ain't cheap. At three bucks a pop, you can do the math. Twelve Kumamotos will set you back more than you'd pay for an entrée just about anywhere in St. Louis, and after you've polished 'em off, you'll probably still want to order dinner.
Your experience at DeMun Oyster Bar may well depend on your taste in oysters. I've learned that I like the clean flavor of the Kumamotos and the light, cucumber-esque Penn Cove Selects from Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. I'm not as big a fan of oysters that pack a strong salty bite, like the Sister Point oysters from Washington's Hood Canal. (All oysters are served with a sharply flavored and chilled-to-the-point-of-slushy mignonette.)
You may also order your oysters fried or grilled. The former, plump inside their crisp panko breading, are delicious with a pineapple salsa and chipotle aioli on the side, or in a po' boy sandwich. The grilled oysters, topped with a vodka cream sauce, didn't have nearly the same allure. The heat from the grill turned the texture unpleasantly soft and diminished the flavor's nuance. Not sure which way to turn? A combination platter brings three raw, three fried and three grilled.
Besides oysters, you can order steamed clams and mussels (or a combination of both). I ate the mussels, which were cooked perfectly and served in a rich, garlicky beurre blanc. The only downside: Rather than bread to sop up the broth, the dish came equipped with two lousy slices of brick-hard crostini. An order of good pommes frites were deployed for dipping duty. (DeMun's thinly sliced sweet-potato chips would also work here.) But still: Bread would have been better.
There are a few more pedestrian entrée options, like poached salmon and pan-seared scallops and, for those who have totally missed the boat, grilled beef tenderloin. There is exactly one dessert, but it's a doozy: two large beignets dusted with powdered sugar and served with delicious honey from Bee Tree, a local purveyor.
The wine list smartly features sparklers and whites, with a few of the sparkling and nearly all of the still wines available by the glass. The whites, mostly New World, are the sorts of crisp, dry wines that pair well with shellfish. As the weather warms up, they'll also be lovely on their own, especially as you sit on the patio at DeMun Oyster Bar, with its backdrop of trees and residents walking their dogs.
You really should treat yourself to some oysters, though. I mean, I risked death to bring you this recommendation. You owe me at least half a dozen Kumamotos for that.
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