The Walrus, the Carpenter, and Ogg

The first oyster-eater wishes every dish was that simple.

When talking about oysters, everyone always says how brave was Ogg the Prehistoric Fisherman, the first person ever to eat one. But that's bullshit. Ogg wasn't brave. Ogg was either crazy or just really hungry. He'd probably tried to eat lots of other things that day—sticks and dirt and bugs and clumps of mud—and then bumbled down along the seashore, saw a rock filled with meat, and tried to eat that, too. The brave one, the smart one, was Ogg's buddy: the second guy ever to eat an oyster. He'd been watching Ogg. He'd seen him choke on dirt and try to gnaw through tree branches. He'd watched Ogg wander along the shore, pick up what looked like a rock, and slurp out the creature living inside. He then watched Ogg for a little longer—probably to see whether or not the craziest mother in the Paleolithic neighborhood suddenly dropped dead from rock poisoning or whatever—but finally went down to the shore himself and hunted around for a meat-rock of his own: to look down into it, at the quivering, live thing within. And then he ate it. That guy—Prehistoric Beachcomber Number Two—is someone I can identify with. His thought process must've run something like, "Well, if Ogg can eat this and live, maybe it's good." Sitting at the curving tin bar at The Walrus and the Carpenter is Ogg the Seattleite. Ogg has obviously come here to eat oysters—lots of oysters. He is focused, undistracted by anything else on the menu. He has eyes only for the woven metal baskets at the far end of the counter, filled with the day's haul of shellfish. He orders carefully, in a pattern that makes sense only to him—bouncing around among the 10 or so different varieties on offer, pairing this with this and that with that. He talks to the server working the bar, asking her about the different properties of the Kusshi, the Eagle Rock, and the Olympia—which are sweet, which are metallic, and which carry the sharpest, most flooding sting of the sea. To her credit, she is able to answer most of his questions. She helps him pair wines with them, and goes into detail about the home addresses of many of his selections. The Blue Pool oysters are from Hood Canal, grown in bags and tumbled clean. They're small, salty in the liquor, and briny in the meat. The Sweetwater are from Lopez Island, the Kusshi from Deep Bay, B.C., with long, deep shells and a delicate, clean flavor. With them, a bottle of white, a French petit Chablis, or a Pouilly-Fumé. I am sitting one seat down from Ogg the Seattleite, watching him. He arrived a few minutes before I did and immediately entered into his oyster negotiations with the server. I watch him when his first tray arrives: eight rocks full of meat, displayed on a bed of ice and served with a little cup of champagne mignonette, a little cup of grated horseradish. He has chosen two each of Hama Hama, Blue Pool, Kusshi, and Kumamoto, and as the platter is set before him, he fusses—adjusting it into some kind of clock arrangement as the server gestures to each variety in turn. When he eats, he closes his eyes. Sometimes he chews, sometimes only swallows. I pretend to study the menu, but really I'm watching Ogg—waiting to see which oyster affects him the most deeply, which seems to touch on whatever desperate hunger drove him into Ballard, to a restaurant named for a Lewis Carroll poem about the indiscriminate love of a Carpenter and a beachcombing Walrus for talking shellfish. But he seems to like them all, to have no particular preference. He eats his way through his platter in record time, slurping liquor and wiping his chin with a napkin, seeming none the worse for wear. So when the server comes to stand in front of me, I tell her that I too would like some oysters. "Kusshi," I say. "Kumamoto, Blue Pool, Hama Hama—just one of each for right now." When she brings them, I understand what Ogg was so focused on. The oysters are cold and achingly fresh, each just slightly different or vastly different from the other. The Kusshi are my favorite—a little nugget of flesh as if I'd suddenly grown a second, small tongue, washed by the taste of concentrated sea. The Kumamoto are the most familiar, improved with a hot spike of horseradish to cut the slick feeling of the meat. Ogg eats oysters all night. I eat far fewer, but get my fill—a dozen or so and a glass of wine and a bottle of Czech lager. Ogg is still going strong when I hop down from my stool, pay my bill, and wind my way through the tightly packed crowd toward the door. For all I know, he stayed until closing (talking, no doubt, of cabbages and kings), but I leave happy and satisfied. "A good place for oysters," I think to myself. Which is as it should be: Oysters are the simplest, most primal food in the world. It's almost as if the guys in the kitchen at The Walrus and the Carpenter could reach out the window and pluck them right out of the Sound. All a good cook needs to do is open them and step out of the way, a lesson those same cooks would do well to remember when it comes to the remainder of the menu. On a Saturday night, I go back to not eat oysters, to sample that part of the menu which actually requires the application of fire and tools and talent. The Walrus and the Carpenter was opened by Renee Erickson (owner of Boat Street Café) and Jeremy Price (also of Boat Street) in July, within a week of Ethan Stowell's Staple & Fancy, which sits just on the other side of the room's interior windows. Sitting in one, you can look into the other—to see how the other half lives, perhaps, just through the looking glass. And when I show up at The Walrus and the Carpenter at 4:30, Staple & Fancy is still quiet while things on my side of the glass are simply insane. The Walrus and the Carpenter takes no reservations. The walk-in traffic and the size of the space—tight and closely packed, with room for maybe 40 people, max—would make it impossible. Seven months out from opening, they're probably turning this floor five or six times in a single night, and at any point after 4:30 there's going to be a wait—which I know because, at 4:30, I get the last seat at the bar. Everyone around me is eating oysters and drinking wine, fighting with their coats and purses, trying to balance them on knees because in this small room so crowded with eaters, there is apparently no room for hooks or anything of the sort. I have a menu in front of me before my elbows are even down on the bar, a single page covered with small plates and snacks—upscaled and convoluted bar grub meant to approximate a meal and take full advantage of the freshest local supplies. There are Utz potato chips on the board for a buck. A basket of Columbia City Bakery bread and butter with olive oil and salt will run you $3. There are roasted almonds with trendy espelette pepper for $3, and a bowl of marinated olives for $4. All of which is just fine if you're cool with paying money for things that most places give away for free—if in smaller portions, and made with brands or ingredients less carefully curated. Moving on, the ever-changing menu blossoms into a borderless, market-driven spread of competing flavors. There are sliced radishes in the menu's "Garden" section, with butter and lemon oil; baby turnips sautéed in brown butter; fried brussels sprouts dressed only in sea salt and chives, with a potato gratin sitting there temptingly at the bottom, like a tease of starch and melted cheese. Thin slices of speck fall from the blade of the slicer jammed in among all the other equipment in the small, open mosh pit of a kitchen where The Walrus and the Carpenter's staff labor. Chicken-liver mousse with golden raisins and mustard-and-goose paté with Seckel pear, celeriac, and pistachio come off the busy garde-manger station. And there are still a half-dozen or more fish and shellfish dishes coming off the stoves; five cheeses, all on dressed plates; and desserts. I order fried brussels sprouts, which come burnt and bordering on impossible to eat. The potato gratin is thick and heavy, with leeks adding a vegetable greenness but no savor and the Cantal cheese béchamel overpowering the delicate, layered slices of potato. It too is burnt, the surface having gotten the worst of the salamander's heat—bubbling up into a brown crust, shading over to black—that does nothing good for the flavor. Just a touch of burnt cheese, like a whisper of scorched garlic, will ruin even the most carefully conceived dish. Two plates down and I catch myself glancing longingly at Staple & Fancy on the other side of the glass. An order of fried oysters is huge: six or eight, of all different varieties, cornmeal-breaded and fried golden, served with a pale green cilantro aioli. And the slip of Delice du Jura, with a lace of balsamic vinegar and brandied cherries from the bar's stock of upscale garnishes, is excellent. Both of them arrive as no more than they absolutely need to be, but every other dish seems to have at least one too many ingredients or hands involved in its creation. Grilled sardines are excellent, and the ones off the grills at The Walrus and the Carpenter are finger-thick, fat with meat and cooked to a warm, greasy, and flaky perfection. The shallots add a spike of acid to cut the fattiness of the fish, and that's fine. Parsley tempers the sardines' fishiness a little. But then there are walnuts (more fat) and melted butter (even more fat). And where any two of these things would've been good, four additional flavors are just too much. It's the same with the smoked trout (served with pickled red onions and crème fraiche, which is fine, but then with lentils and walnuts on top of that) and the salmon tartare with apple and mint and horseradish and crème fraiche. But what kills me across all the plates I try is not just the overcomplication of things best kept simple, but the simple mistakes in execution that keep tripping up dishes that could be good. The fried oysters, for example, are mostly done perfectly—except for a couple little ones at the bottom of the plate which spent too long in the oil and came hard and dry and overdone. And a dessert order of warm banana bread was excellent, except for the part right in the middle which was still pasty and undercooked. Right now, The Walrus and the Carpenter might simply be going through a bad patch—the stress of handling overflow crowds night after night will eventually start to wear on any crew. But also, something about the construction of the menu speaks to an inability to find the middle ground between the austerity of the oyster and the complications of goose paté and white-anchovy tartine. For a restaurant which does its best work while doing nothing at all, I would hope that bringing the other side of the menu back into equilibrium would just be a matter of pulling back and simplifying. But if they can't manage that, there will always be the oysters. And then maybe a proper dinner at Staple & Fancy, just a few feet away and through the looking glass. Price Guide Oysters  Market Price Bread and butter  $3 Fried oysters  $8 Smoked Trout  $10 Brussels sprouts  $6 Sardines  $8

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