Before setting out to review Shucks Fish House & Oyster Bar, I couldn't help but think of Anthony Bourdain's book “Kitchen Confidential” in which the chef-author-TV personality dishes about fish.
“I never order fish on Monday, unless I'm eating at a four-star restaurant where I know they are buying their fish directly from the source,” Bourdain wrote. “I know how old most seafood is on Monday — about four to five days old!”
You can heed his advice if you want, but no matter what day it is, diners at Shucks don't have to fret about the freshness of fish, even in landlocked Omaha. That's because this modest restaurant at 19th and Leavenworth Streets is affiliated with Absolutely Fresh Seafood. The businesses share an owner, and they receive a steady stream of fresh fish, oysters and other ocean delights on a daily basis.
“We go through so much, it's astronomical,” said Jaime Hendrickson, Shucks' director of operations. “The product is constantly being turned over.”
So basically, whether you're ordering sole on Saturday or tuna on Tuesday, it will be fresh.
On two recent visits, I encountered high quality, delicious and, for the most part, well-prepared seafood starters and entrees.
Open for a little over a year, this is the third and newest of the Shucks restaurants operated by Greg Lindberg, owner of Absolutely Fresh Seafood. The decor and vibe here is similar to the original Shucks at 119th and Pacific Streets.
Weathered, reclaimed barn wood serves as a dividing wall between the main dining area and the bar. Faux seagulls hang from the black-painted ceiling. A huge marlin adorns one wall, while a painted ocean-scene mural with bright reddish-orange fish takes up another wall.
Fish, of the edible kind, was my main course during our first visit on a busy Friday night. After a 20-minute wait, my dining partner and I were seated at a table in the main dining room. Sheets of brown kraft paper cover each table. Using the disposable paper is a fast, fuss-free way to clean tables between guests, but I kept worrying that I'd get a nasty paper cut on the edges if I wasn't careful. (I didn't.)
I chose roasted halibut medallions from the list of specials. The fish was served with a gouda chorizo risotto cake and sauteed vegetables, and rested on a balsamic herb tomato sauce. Seared and seasoned with salt and pepper, the four pieces of halibut — firm white fish with a clean, delicate flavor — were moist and flaky. The sauce had a nice balance of acidity and richness, and since it's under the fish, you can take as much or little as you like.
The vegetables, including zucchini, yellow squash, carrots and slender green beans, were seasoned with salt and pepper and sauteed in Shucks' house butter, enhanced with garlic and herbs. It's easy to overcook veggies, but these retained a nice crisp texture.
I enjoyed my dish, but I liked my dining partner's better. He also ordered off the specials list and chose the Coquilles St. Shucks. Inspired by the classic French dish Coquilles Saint-Jacques, it was the highlight of our meal: rich, creamy and delicious.
Traditionally served in scallop shells, Coquilles Saint-Jacques is white-wine poached scallops covered with a cream sauce, topped with a mix of cheese and breadcrumbs and browned under a broiler.
Shucks used a shallow bowl to serve the dish instead of scallop shells. About 10 medium-sized scallops poached in white wine and garlic were nestled in a creamy sherry Alfredo with portabella mushrooms, artichoke hearts and asparagus. The dish is finished under the broiler with a dusting of breadcrumbs for a golden-brown top.
Despite the richness of the sauce, it didn't overwhelm the delicate sweetness of the scallops. Two slices of baguette from Le Quartier Baking Co. were perfect for scooping up the sauce.
Prices on the specials menu run anywhere from $14 to $17, and oysters are priced individually depending on the day's selection.
Entrees on the regular menu start at $9.99 and go all the way up to $36.99 for a pound of king crab legs. Appetizers, like the crab cakes and fried oysters we sampled, are around $12.
I've never had crab cakes in Maryland, but I've eaten them at plenty of other places. The version at Shucks is my favorite, and I regretted having to share it. It boasts a high crab-to-filler ratio, and it isn't coated in breadcrumbs. Shucks makes theirs with both lump crab meat and claw meat, Old Bay seasoning, parsley and lemon juice, with a small amount of cracker meal as a binder.
“It's almost 90 percent crab,” Hendrickson later told me.
No wonder it's so good.
We also liked the crispy, golden oysters. According to the menu, the restaurant uses the thinnest breading in town. I think it's right. The breading isn't thick or heavy at all. The secret? Shucks uses seasoned corn flour. Unlike corn meal, corn flour is pulverized to the consistency of a fine powder, which makes for a light, airy, crispy coating.
During our second visit for a late Sunday lunch, we encountered some hits and misses.
From the sandwich side of the menu, I went with the New England lobster roll. The huge pieces of lobster impressed me. Taken from the claw and knuckle, the lobster meat sat inside a toasted, split-top hoagie from local bakery Rotella's. The absence of celery thrilled me — it's one of the few vegetables I loathe. I also appreciated how the lobster wasn't overdressed — just mayo brightened with some lemon and lime juice.
“You don't want to overpower the lobster,” Hendrickson said.
Unfortunately, that approach was missing from my dining partner's crab-stuffed Alaskan cod entree.
Though we liked the cod, which was seared then oven-roasted, we didn't think the orange shiitake mushroom sauce poured on top was a good fit. It tasted fine on its own, but the thick brown gravy dominated the dish, overpowering the cod's delicate flavor. It would probably work better on beef, pork or even chicken — just not fish.
Hendrickson told me later that the sauce reduced too much, making it overly thick.
“The idea was solid. We dropped the ball on the execution,” he said.
The other issue was the lack of a vegetable. Though we liked the scoop of wasabi mashed potatoes, it's a starch. The plate looked meager with just two items and a lemon wedge. And since vegetables were included with my entree on our first visit, I asked Hendrickson about it later.
Yes, he said, the dish was supposed to come with a medley of sauteed vegetables, but the kitchen forgot to add them.
Since it was happy hour, we had one of the specials: peel-and-eat shrimp for 25 cents a piece. Presented on a layer of crushed ice in a round metal pan, the shrimp were served with cocktail sauce and lemon wedges. Coated on the outside with Creole seasoning, they were perfectly cooked, and I could have eaten a lot more than the dozen we split.
We also downed a plate of grilled oysters (five to an order). Served on the half shell, they're topped with Shucks' house butter and a sprinkle of parmesan, then finished under the broiler.
Next time, I might even try the oysters raw — something I've always been a little leery about. At least I'll know they'll be absolutely fresh, even on a Monday.