"Over the past 20 years, I've had the good fortune to work as a consultant on a number of successful oyster bars in different cities," Rowley explains in the current issue of Food Arts. "I thought it would be fun to conjecture what my own oyster bar would be like."
Rowley's extraordinarily precise description is a testament to how meticulously he's scrutinized every aspect of the oyster-eating experience. He specifies the number of tables and booths, and details where he'd hang the portrait of Earnest Hemingway, best known in seafood circles for the oyster sojourn chronicled in A Moveable Feast. At "J.R.'s", Rowley's tattered copy of the book would merit its own glass frame.
It's clear from the 3000-word story just how much influence Rowley had on the design of Taylor Shellfish's Melrose Market retail store: Rowley is a professed fan of exterior neon signs, plexiglass dividers for oyster displays, skilled shucking (in his ideal bar, the hostesses and servers are trained shuckers who've visited the supplier's oyster beds) and baguettes.
While I agree with nearly every one of Rowley's choices -- who could resist a restaurant where customers are "greeted by an engaging oyster-loving host or hostess trained to quickly ascertain diners' level of experience with the oyster (and) engage accordingly" or dispute that "customers are the best design feature in an oyster bar"? -- I wish he'd made room on his imaginary oyster trays for crackers. I have no doubt Rowley would choose an outstanding bread, but I much prefer the textural contrast provided by a crisp cracker. And when oysters are served with a pint of Pike Brewing Company pale ale, to name one beverage on Rowley's curated booze list, I find the yeastiness of bread redundant. I'm siding with the salute to American oyster-eating traditions that a cracker represents.
Rowley might respond that he's serving celery sticks for snap, an accoutrement borrowed from a still-life painting. But he's not serving much else: "Out of respect for the oyster," he'd do away with mignonettes, cocktail sauces and Tabasco, providing only a lemon half in cheesecloth. If I were allowed my crackers, I'd lobby for horseradish: Although I'd never mar a good oyster with it, a Saltine smeared with horseradish is my favorite oyster complement.
"Before opening J.R.'s, I took a poll on Twitter and Facebook, the modern oracles, and found out that a majority liked them cold and naked," Rowley writes. "I've been accused of being a purist. To that I say guilty as charged."