Monday, May 7, 2012

The Oldest Restaurant in the U.S. - Union Oyster House, Boston, MA

When in Boston, there is a place where everybody knows your name... well, this isn't that place. The place I'm really talking about is about halfway across town... No one there, aside from my dining companions, had any idea what my name was. Yes, it's something of a tourist trap, given it's historic status, but it's a place that you really can't pass up if you only have one night in town. The place is the historic Union Oyster House- which has been in operation since 1826.

The wait to be seated can be very long- 45 minutes to an hour. This is offset by the large bar downstairs that features a great selection of local Samuel Adams beers on tap, but next to the main bar is a smaller, half circle bar with ten tiny stools crammed around it. This is the oyster bar, where you can get a pint and a plate of fresh oysters. The fresh shellfish, the experience of watching skilled shuckers opening oysters at a breakneck pace, and  the smell of horseradish, shellfish liquor, and good beer make this little corner of the restaurant worth the trip alone. You get the sense of long tradition, and you get the idea that this corner of the building hasn't changed much in past 200 years or so. The well-worn blocks of stone the shuckers use to help open their oysters look like they have been in use for at least that long. Whatever you think of  "touristy" spots in general, you have to admit that this is a pretty good one.

A Wellfleet Oyster (left) and a Bluepoint Oyster (Right)
While we waited for our table upstairs, and enjoyed our Sam Adams, we, of course, put away a few raw oysters. The shuckers were more tan happy to explain that they had two varieties- Wellfleets (from nearby Cape Cod), and Bluepoints (from Long Island - where I grew up). We, of course, sampled a few of each with a little lemon and a dot of fresh horseradish. I am hard pressed to say which I preferred- the Wellfleets seemed to go down a little more smoothly, and the Bluepoints seemed to have a little more chew to them. Both were excellent. The Wellfleets appeared to be slightly smaller with a slightly orange tint, and the Bluepoints seemed to have more elongated shells and a grayish-blue tint to them.

After sampling our oysters, it was our turn to be seated for dinner. We shared another round of oysters (half Wellfleet, half Bluepoint) while we waited for our soups to arrive. Being in the city of Boston, the only choice was the classic Clam Chowder- or "chowdah" as the locals would say. You will not find any references to "New England" or "Manhattan" (sacrilege!) style clam chowder... it's listed on the menu simply as "clam chowder" and the type, here in the heart of New England, should be a forgone conclusion.

Surprisingly, the "chowdah" was not as thick and creamy as I imagined the genuine article would be. The broth was indeed creamy, but was on the lighter, more thin side of creamy. Cubes of soft potato, and big chunks of fresh clams round out the soup. The thing that struck me was that the briny, oceanic flavor of the clams and their liquor really cut through the cream in a way that doesn't seem possible if the clams were not extremely fresh, or if the broth was too thick and creamy. Balance made this chowder stand out- a balance that allowed the clams to take center stage while still letting the other ingredients assert themselves. I should also point out that the hunk of cornbread served along with our starters was excellent- soft and crumbly- barely held together and packed with the smell and taste of roasted corn.

For dinner, I ordered the Lobster Scampi- a whole boiled lobster served over linguini and grape tomatoes in a light buttery sauce. The combination was nice- a little pasta and the slight acid of the tomatoes was a nice counter to the rich lobster meat. The lobster itself was pretty good, but not extraordinary. I could have passed on the little cup of grated parmesan on the side- after all, any good Italian boy from New York can tell you that you don't ever put cheese on fish (except when I feel like bending the rules a little). After two rounds of super-fresh oysters, and an excellent clam chowder washed down with a hoppy Latitude 48 India Pale Ale, anything that follows is bound to be a little anti-climactic, but I'm not complaining.

The oyster bar, the chowder, and the historic atmosphere really make the trip worthwhile. Stepping into Union Oyster House is akin to stepping back in time- a slice of colonial Boston tucked away in the heart of a modern city. The place reeks of history and tradition. It was a favorite hangout of Boston's most famous family- and they have even preserved John F. Kennedy's favorite booth in the upstairs dining room. Yes, it's definitely a tourist trap- and even has the obligatory gift shop downstairs past the oyster bar. However, if every tourist trap had outrageously fresh shellfish and wonderfully authentic "chowdah," I wouldn't avoid them so much.

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