When it comes to oysters on the half shell, I’m something of a purist. Give me a fresh, properly shucked oyster and all I need is a drop or two of freshly squeezed lemon to sing counterpoint to the briny liquor. On special occasions, I might take my cue from the French and have my oysters with a mignonette sauce and a glass of Chablis.
Then why, as I slurped and munched my way through half a dozen of what Full Moon Oyster Bar calls their Quarter Moon – a raw oyster on a saltine cracker, topped with jalapeño, horseradish, black pepper and a take-no-prisoners hot sauce – did I enjoy them so much? And how could I – a restaurant critic, after all, who is supposed to be immune to Man v. Food-type challenges of this sort – be so proud that I had won a tie-dyed T-shirt?
How could I not? Everything about the place, from the seafood shack decor to the friendly shuckers behind the four horseshoe-shaped oyster bars (there are no tables or booths here), conspires to put you in a laid-back, flip-flops-casual mood. Never mind that it’s still wintertime, and that none of the four locations of this North Carolina chain are within a hundred miles of the coast. The minute you plant your backside onto one of those rustic bar stools (whose weathered plank seats are salvaged teak from Indonesian sailing vessels), you’re open to new adventures.
On another visit, I found myself unable to resist the siren call of “crawfish alligator cheesecake” – a combination of words that I would ordinarily have translated as “Warning! Novelty dish! Only for those who want to brag that they’ve eaten alligator!” Turns out the savory dish, served here with a Creole mustard sauce, has roots in Louisiana bayou tradition. And, as I discovered, it’s an eminently worthy starter.
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It also happens to be representative of a menu that freely explores the spectrum of American regional seafood, from New England clam chowder to shrimp and grits.
Crab cakes – pan-seared, big as your palm, and riddled with lump blue crab meat and a confetti of diced red and green peppers – would do a Chesapeake Bay crab shack proud. The Low Country shrimp boil is another keeper – half a pound of jumbo peel ’n’ eat shrimp steamed with potatoes, corn on the cob and chunks of smoked sausage in a Newcastle beer broth.
Occasionally, the kitchen’s wanderlust leads it astray. A Caribbean riff on a surf ’n’ turf called Jamaican’ Me Crazy disappoints with a bland jerk sauce and mediocre “rice pilaf.” Blackened wahoo was a bit overcooked when I ordered it, though the fish clearly lived up to its “fresh fish of the day” billing. (The restaurant gets seafood deliveries three to five times a week, according to manager Jonas Glascoe, and favors fish from Carolina waters).
If the absence of North Carolina’s own Calabash-style fried seafood seems a glaring omission, it’s in keeping with a menu clearly aimed at offering a gastronomic getaway. You won’t be missing that Calabash combo platter, anyway, once you tuck into Full Moon’s steamed shellfish alternative. Here, “combination platter” means your choice of two or three: oysters, shrimp, clams, mussels or snow crab legs, all expertly cooked and served in feast-like portions with an addictive warm redskin potato salad and coleslaw. True to old-school oyster bar custom, you can specify just how done you’d like your oysters cooked.
If you don’t want your oysters steamed at all, then char-grilled oysters – topped with butter, garlic and a dusting of Parmesan – are a winning alternative. The fried oyster salad is first-rate, too. In fact, Full Moon’s oysters have yet to let me down, regardless of how – or whether – they’re cooked. The only ones I haven’t yet tried are Moon Rockers (Full Moon’s take on oysters Rockefeller) and Blue Cheese Oysters. Maybe I’ll try them next time.
Who am I kidding? I’m going on a Monday night, when the house raw oysters are on special (55-75 cents each, depending on their size and whether they’re from Gulf Coast or North Carolina waters). I might even splurge on a sampling of the half dozen or so premium varieties typically on offer – Beausoleil oysters from Canada if they’ve got them, maybe some Rhode Island Oyster Bays. This time, I think I’ll stick with the lemon wedge. I’ve already got the T-shirt.
Full Moon Oyster Bar and Seafood Kitchen
1600 Village Market Place, Morrisville
Rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: oyster-bar casual
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: friendly, eager to please, and (for the most part) excellent shuckers
Recommended: oysters any way, crawfish alligator cheesecake, steamed combinations, crab cakes
Open: Lunch and dinner daily, brunch Saturday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Reservations: not accepted
Other: full bar; accommodates children; minimal vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent.
☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.