Archive for the 'Half Shell' Category

Oysters on the Half Shell! Oyster Power!

Friday night was just one of those nights. I’d come off a hellish workweek and wanted nothing more than to spend the entire evening with in my pajamas, on my couch, drinking wine from Walgreen’s. B. had other plans, however. After a good hour of waffling back and forth between going out and staying in, I finally decided to cave into B.’s insistence that we have a “night on the town” and his desire for fresh seafood, so off we went to Half Shell on the northern edge of Lincoln Park.

I’d heard nothing about this place, ever, and I kind of feel like a bad Chicagoan for admitting this because apparently it’s in the same league as far as Chicago institutions go as The Berghoff and Gibson’s. It’s easy to miss, nestled as it is on an unassuming corner of Diversey, and hidden in a space no bigger than someone’s basement.

This is the kind of place that is downright ideal for whiling away several blissful hours on a cold and blustery winter’s night. It’s dark and lit mostly by strands of multicolored Christmas lights that I’m willing to wager remain on display all year round, a la Butch McGuire’s. Tables are mismatched and packed tightly together, assuring for some awkward maneuvers as people squeeze their way between chairs to get to their seats. A fireplace burns brightly in the back left hand corner of Half Shell, crowned with a plastic stuffed fish and surrounded by walls adorned with other such kitschy nautical items like anchors and rusted-out signs.

B. and I were expecting a long wait but the bartender, who is also in charge of seating in a remarkable lack of attachment to traditional restaurant seating procedures, informed us there was a small table in the back. Our table bordered the busy thoroughfare used by the staff and while this may have bothered some, it allowed us a firsthand view of the orders being brought forth out of the clanging kitchen. A few minutes later, the table behind us left and we were able to snuggle into a cozy, two-person booth right next to the fireplace. Our server was a no-nonsense, middle-aged dude with tatted arms and a thick, Ditka-esque accent; and whose way of asking if B. wanted a refill on his beer was to nudge the mug with his knuckles and raise his eyebrows.

The menu was slightly off-putting to me at first, as it was limited and filled with things like fried clam strips and fried oysters and other manner of breaded sea dwellers. Luckily, the specials board informed us that there was an Alaskan King crab and snow crab leg combo basket available, which instantly caught my eye. B. ordered six blue point oysters as our appetizer and they arrived at our table almost instantly. These oysters were meaty things, each rugged shell half was filled with a mouthful of briny oyster and the entire plate came with a tiny paper cup of horseradishy cocktail sauce and two lemon slices. B. chose to suck the oysters straight from the shell after a squirt of lemon and a dab of sauce, whereas I used my tiny fork to dislodge the meat from its shell. I slopped on blobs of the horseradish sauce and nearly drained the lemon of its juice to make a delicious little oyster soup of sorts before scooping it out with my fork. They tasted unbelievably fresh and juicy, with only a slightly brackish tang at the back end.

Our crab legs came in a big plastic basket; giant, steaming, hulking crab legs that dwarfed the basket itself and were served with little ramekins of melted, garlic herbed butter. After digging under the crab legs, a mountain of fries were unearthed, deeper still and there sat slices of toasted bread. It was like the never ending basket of seafood miracles. We instantly went to work on releasing the crab meat from its shell, crunching with our crackers and digging with our tiny forks for every last scrap. Half Shell’s crab legs weren’t any dinky, anemic excuses for crab legs from Red Lobster, no sir. These legs were bursting with meat and boasted a remarkably aromatic and fresh flavor, requiring so much work that for awhile our table fell silent as we focused intently on extracting the tastiest morsels.

Meals like the one at Half Shell are among my favorite kinds of dining experiences. There’s no frills, no pretension, just simple but completely and undeniably delicious food in a laid-back, jovial atmosphere. It’s the perfect place to take a date, or a friend, or your family, or a STRANGER for God’s sake, as long as they can appreciate a basket o’ crab and a cold beer.