A quarter-century ago or so, my father, a recovering New Yorker, would meet me in the Central West End every few weeks to make a purchase that helped dull his cravings: a dozen Gulf oysters on the half shell for about six bucks.
The St. Louis area has widened its oyster horizons significantly since then, exploiting the availability of varieties from both coasts and the Gulf of Mexico that exhibit distinctive “oysterroirs”: flavors and textures that reflect the salinity and the temperature of the water in the area where they’re harvested.
And although their warm-water origins cause Gulf oysters to be viewed with less enthusiasm, they’re still quite snarfable, which is why I was happy to find them for just a buck apiece during happy hour at Coastal Bistro and Bar, the moderate makeover of a Clayton restaurant that started its life two years ago as Mosaic Bistro Market. Gulf Coast oysters are regularly priced at $1.50, East Coast oysters (Chesapeake Bay on our visit) are $2, and West Coast (Hood Canal that night) are $2.50.
As the name would indicate, the restaurant is now seafood-focused. Calling it “coastal” offers the kitchen wide latitude, working with fish and shellfish from the East, West and Gulf coasts, plus freshwater locations on the mainland.
Among the appetizers were fish tacos ($9) inspired by San Diego and Baja California and an off-the-menu special, crab “Napoleon” ($16) drawing on a delicacy usually associated with the Chesapeake Bay, blue crab. The former defaulted to tilapia for its fish but redeemed that choice by serving it in firm, thick, well-seasoned slices that ran the whole diameter of the two corn tortillas holding them. Spicy pico de gallo was partially extinguished by chopped cabbage, and although lime quarters were supplied, additional lime flavor was provided by squiggles of Mexican-style crema. They were excellent fish tacos, but they fell short of superlative because parts of the tortilla had become soggy before they were delivered to our table.
The Napoleon layered crab was lightly dressed with a cilantro-and-lime sauce and showcased three slices of tomato, each from a different heirloom variety, creating a vivid presentation as well as memorable flavors. With heirlooms likely to be in season early this year, the dish seems a strong candidate for the printed menu, at least until the end of fall.
An entree of three shrimp and three scallops ($23), the seafood somewhere between medium and large, were dusted with spices and cornbread crumbs, which provided a slight crunch. The shellfish were topped with fresh cress and sat on a potato pancake, and slices of hog-jowl bacon underneath added unexpected and nicely complementary flavor and more crunch.
Low Country boil ($25) had four clams, three shrimp and five mussels, all in the shell, along with a crab cake, slices of andouille and half a cob of roasted corn. Service in a small paella pan that had been lined with a facsimile of a newspaper gave the dish a Carolina fish-shack feel.
On the nonseafood side, a New York strip steak ($26) was pretty basic with roasted asparagus and “smashed” potatoes, although a topping of root beer sauce and caramelized onions added an interesting sweetness.
Desserts were served as “shooters,” with custard, pudding or pie-filling approaches like lemon meringue and Rocky Road served in small glasses ($4 each or three for $10).
Tables have replaced what was formerly a merchandise display at the front of the deep single storefront, with booths along one wall and the bar along the other, leading back to a visible kitchen fronted by a short display case. The booths have half-wall dividers every few tables, allowing for a semblance of intimacy even when the place is full.
With everything taking place out in the open, however, the staff needs to take care in keeping private conversations private. We overheard staff members having a mild argument and sharing privileged communication.
A dozen oysters for $12 during happy hour is a good reason to test out Coastal Bistro and Bar, but there are many other reasons to linger through the evening.
Coastal Bistro and Bar
Two stars out of four • Where 14 North Central Avenue, Clayton • More info 314-932-7377, coastalbistro.com • Menu Seafood from the East, West and Gulf coasts, plus a few meat and vegetarian items • Hours Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday
Our food ratings
One star Good • Two stars Very good • Three stars Excellent • Four stars Extraordinary