BELLINGHAM -- The Oyster Bar, just south of the Whatcom County line on Chuckanut Drive, faces the daily challenge of living up to a long tradition of culinary excellence no other restaurant in the area can match.
Judging from our recent experience, they are meeting that challenge.
It's a great spot for oysters- raw, fried or baked- but there are plenty of choices for those who can't bear bivalves. Besides the food, the Oyster Bar has long been known for its wine list, and connoisseurs will need some extra time to study the extensive offerings.
The restaurant started in the 1930s as a simple seafood shack selling the output of a nearby oyster-grower. Its pretensions were modest until 1971, when then-owner Thomas Lee adopted a more sophisticated approach that later owners built upon. Guy and Linda Colbert have owned the Oyster Bar since 1987.
"I think the only competition is ourselves," Guy Colbert said. "I think this is such a special spot that if we do things right here, we'll be fine."
The Oyster Bar clings to the cliffside overlooking Samish Bay, and every table enjoys a sweeping view across the water to Anacortes and the islands beyond. Space in the low-ceilinged, wood-paneled dining room is at a premium. The owners have squeezed in a fair number of tables for so small a space, probably out of economic necessity. For us, the crowding stops short of uncomfortable, but the Oyster Bar would be a poor choice for intimate personal or business transactions. Conversations are going to be overheard here.
When the evening sun lights up Samish Bay, and the Oyster Bar's seafood and meat dishes light up your palette, you probably won't mind.
We began a recent feast by sharing a Northwest Mushroom Trio, $12.50, an ample platter of perfectly cooked fungi prepared with oloroso sherry broth that was a near-perfect backdrop. In the midst of the mushrooms was a big cube of crisp grilled bruschetta topped with dried tomato and kalamata tapenade that gradually softened in the broth as we ate the mushrooms, making it ready to serve as a coda after we had finished off the last fragments of the mushrooms.
Then, a crab and sherry bisque arrived, playfully garnished with flaky crackers in the shape of little crabs, made on site. The big $8.50 bowlful was rich and satisfying, as was our next course, a marinated beet salad, $8.50, with red and yellow beets, red onion, mache lettuce, grape tomatoes, goat cheese and toasted pine nuts with honey-lemon vinaigrette and candied lemon zest. I've always enjoyed plain old canned pickled beets. This salad provided a much richer version of that homely taste, with an adventurous array of accompaniments that harmonized in unexpected but wonderful ways.
For main courses, we selected bouillabaisse, $26, and Dungeness crab cakes, $25.
The bouillabaisse takes advantage of the fresh shellfish available from nearby producers. The clams and mussels in the saffron broth, redolent of the sea with just the right touch of salt, were as fresh as those you might gather yourself. (One might think that freshness would be a prerequisite for shellfish, and it should be, but it is not always the rule even at upscale restaurants.) For my money, the kitchen could have relied on these locally available marine delicacies for this dish, and skipped the shrimp that shared the bowl, which also included crisped bread rounds drizzled with sauce rouille.
The crab cakes were perfectly done - crunchy gold on the outside, soft and savory within, served with kiwi and mango chutney, curried aioli and a bed of large-grain couscous and sautéed vegetables.
The only drawback to this place is parking. The lot in front of the restaurant has room for only a few cars. That leaves many patrons to park on the Chuckanut Drive shoulder, which ranges from narrow near the restaurant to non-existent just a few yards to the north. If you have a big car and a small one, take the smaller, and be careful not to fall over the cliff or get hit by a passing car as you exit your vehicle.