There are three components to describing an oyster: saltiness (as a rule, the colder the water, the saltier the oyster), texture (delicate, firm, etc.) and its sweetness or finish (descriptions range from metallic to cucumbery, grassy and watermelony). Kumamoto is a Pacific oyster, quite small, with a deep cup, a frilly fluted shell, buttery texture and a smooth, fruity flavor. The bigger Malpeques is an Atlantic species with a brinier, almost cucumbery flavor. Still, Florida consumers tend to prize size, having been weaned on brawny Eastern oysters from Apalachicola and elsewhere in the Gulf of Mexico.
"They have a deep cup and firm texture; they're balanced and good sized. I'll take a good winter gulf oyster over any in the world," said Rui Sousa, the manager for the past five years, for three different owners.
These days, because of fears of the vibrio vulnificus bacteria — which can be transmitted through raw oysters — he's sourcing Eastern oysters not, as usual, from Apalachicola, but from Galveston Bay, Texas. Generally, they always have a gulf oyster on the menu, one or two from New England (maybe Blue Points or Riptides from Massachusetts) and one or two from the West Coast (Penn Coves or maybe Gigamotos). These you can have freshly shucked on a bed of ice with just a squeeze of lemon and a splatter of hot sauce. Or you can heat 'em up and dress 'em up: classic Rockefeller, bacon and barbecue sauce, Parmesan and herb crusted, blue cheesed, chipotle Cajun or with a Buffalo spin that involves sriracha butter.
The bivalves are what has made the oyster bar a stalwart downtown for the past 12 years. But not all is status quo. The Central Avenue Oyster Bar was purchased last year by a dynamic young Aussie named Josh Cameron, who liked downtown St. Petersburg and the oysters but thought everything else needed a little work. So he hired a new chef and set to work updating the menu, relaunching the place in November as simply The Oyster Bar. Changes are still coming: He's rebuilding the bar to accommodate 20 taps of Florida craft beer, and he's blowing out the front doors to create more of an open, indoor-outdoor feel.
It's a perplexing thing, but that block of Central Avenue has a perennial boozy, Key West feel to it. You're likely to see someone sidewalk weaving, maybe someone else trying to rustle up a little change. The Oyster Bar has always fit in fairly seamlessly: It's a good times kind of place that gets raucous later in the evening — where, earlier in the evening, it feels totally acceptable to sing along to the delicious early 2000s soundtrack. If Cameron gussies things up too much, who knows? But thus far, it hasn't been Beach Drive-ified.
Beyond the oysters (about $18 per dozen, depending on the kind), it's a good lunch bet for a pair of mahi mahi soft tacos ($12), served in a fun metal taco holder with shredded cabbage and a little lime aioli and paired with workhorse, greaseless fries. Or maybe a blackened grouper sandwich ($14) on a plush ciabatta roll with nice rounds of tomato and onion and crisp lettuce, maybe paired with a healthier side like the sprightly onion and cuke salad.
Led by chef Matthew Smith, kitchen team Nick Forrester and Brad Rix get more inventive at dinnertime, with items like a smooth puree of corn bisque studded with lump crabmeat (and a lot of shell, sadly) and a swirl of chili oil ($7). Or seasoned flour-dredged fried shrimp surrounded by red andouille gravy, the plate centered with a disk of (too firm) grits ($17). It's good and, with a little tinkering, could be great.
The bar offers silly-cheap happy hour specials — I paid $2 for a perfectly acceptable glass of house wine, and different nights of the week feature specials like half-off bottles of wine. With veterans like Sousa on hand, new owner Cameron is taking the Oyster Bar in a positive direction without departing from its good-times past.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.