Since Colonial times, Philadelphians have enjoyed a culinary love affair with oysters. They were plentiful, inexpensive and appeared on the menu at the City Tavern where Ben Franklin and his friends probably indulged in a large dinner.
An upscale yet casual spot called a.bar opened a number of months ago at the corner of 18th and Walnut streets. Edward and I drove by on numerous occasions, but it appeared so dark inside, I was not sure my dining experience would be a pleasant one. I learned that the restaurant features half-price oysters before 6 p.m.
The corny adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” immediately came to mind. I was pleasantly surprised when Edward and I arrived on a cold evening and found the lighting to be just right. I did not need to search my handbag for a flashlight.
The décor is simple. There is a long bar with two engaging bartenders and a handful of simple tables and chairs. The “color” comes from the customers who were enjoying cocktails and plates of oysters.
I sipped an expertly prepared Negroni while Edward enjoyed a Blue Coat martini. The menu is simple with small plates for grazing through the night.
Since we arrived in time for the half-price oysters, we ordered two dozen ($36). Six distinctly different ones were on offer, so we ordered four of each. They included Sunberry from Prince Edward Island; Glidden Point from Maine; Wellfleet from Massachusetts; Moonstone from Rhode Island; Cape May Salt from New Jersey and Chef’s Creek from British Colombia. Oyster lovers will immediately taste the differences among these luscious beauties, which were nestled on ice and served with lemon wedges and a slightly sweet mignonette sauce. I prefer them with just a touch of lemon and took delight comparing the degree of saltiness, light or rich flavor that the oysters imparted.
Keeping with our seafood adventure, we turned to the Jonah crab salad ($14), a marvelous blend of sweet, luscious lump crab that we piled on toast points. Chefs know when to leave a top-quality ingredient alone and allow it to speak for itself.
We wanted a glass of wine with dinner, and the bartenders are most knowledgeable. They offered a taste of wines to us and other customers before we made our selections. Edward picked a Pepiere Muscadet ($14) while I turned to Spain with a glass of Listan Blanco ($12). The bartenders poured five-ounce glasses of wine.
The lobster BLT ($19) was a fun twist to one of my favorite sandwiches. Large chunks of sweet tail meat kept company with thick slab bacon, romaine lettuce and tomato that were layered on sourdough and placed on the panini press. We began munching when the bartender came over and apologized that the chef forgot the lobster in our BLT. A fresh one was prepared, and we found the combinations of ingredients to play off well, but I think a lobster roll bun or good quality toast would allow the ingredients to shine better.
The scallop crudo, ($14) which is called sashimi on the menu, was a little on the bland side and required salt. Still, the raw scallops were top quality and very fresh.
I looked forward to the brandade, ($12) which is among my favorite dishes. Salt cod is soaked and pureed with potatoes and served as a spread in the South of France. This version was well-prepared but needed a bit more seasoning. It arrived with slices of buttery, toasted French bread.
We ended our seafood dinner with a homemade ice cream sandwich ($6) prepared with apple caramel ice cream and served between two cinnamon/sugar cookies. The ingredients were inspired by the spirit of fall and were a fitting way to end our meal.
The simple concept of a raw bar and small plates is not new to Philadelphia, but the fine service and top flight ingredients used at a.bar made for a memorable night.
When the check arrived, our bartender told us there was no charge for our cocktails because of the missing lobster in our lobster BLT.
The oyster happy hour at a.bar runs from 3 to 6 p.m. All oysters are $1.50 per piece.
Three-and-a-half tips of the toque to a.bar.
135 S. 18th St.