Taste: Reviews: East Meets West

The new Oyster House puts a California spin on a Philly tradition

In the early ’90s, when Sam Mink spent his days off from high school shucking oysters at Sansom Street Oyster House, his father’s restaurant, he contemplated alternative careers. By the time he finished college, he was ready to move to San Francisco, where he got a job teaching second grade. But over the years, a funny thing happened. He couldn’t get the family business out of his mind. Eventually, after five years in the classroom, Mink left teaching to attend culinary school, then went on to work at San Fran’s famous Zuni Café. “I always knew Philadelphia would come calling. I knew I would come back home,” says Mink. Oysters were in his blood.

[sidebar]When he moved back to town in 2006, Sansom Street Oyster House wasn’t Mink family-owned for the first time in decades. David Mink, Sam’s dad, sold it in 2000. Afterward, the restaurant’s reputation declined, and rumors swirled that the business wouldn’t survive. Sam Mink bided his time and gathered experience, working at Amada and Distrito, hoping he’d get the chance to bring the property back under family ownership. While he waited, he clarified his vision for the Oyster House: “I knew I wanted to expand the restaurant, raise the ceiling, open the place up.” Food-wise, he would adhere to the restaurant’s venerated traditions — snapper soup, fried oysters with chicken salad — but update them with fresher, lighter California techniques.

Following a serendipitous sale that made Mink the owner, and then a year-long renovation, the new Oyster House is just as he envisioned it. The ceilings now soar, festooned with modern industrial light fixtures and exposed ducts. Whitewashed bricks, glossy subway tile and marble bars give the dining room a clean, expansive feel. The walls are decked with the family’s collection of colorful ceramic oyster plates, a considered detail that lends a real personality palpably different from the contrived corporate identities of so many other eateries this size.

The heart of the menu, the oyster list, changes every day. It usually features five to seven varieties, with options from both coasts. Mink thought about confining the list to East Coast specimens, but his love of the Westerners, like the tiny, succulent, cucumber-scented Kumamoto, mandated that both regions be represented. Servers offer spot-on descriptions and guide newbies through the oyster-ordering process. During one visit, I fell head over heels in love with the Wellfleet from Cape Cod. My only disappointment at the raw bar was inconsistent shucking that left some oysters sullied with bits of shell and grit, especially during busy times.