I knew it was a gamble, showing up at St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar on a Saturday night without a reservation.
Owner/chef Sunny Gerhart has a sterling reputation as the right-hand man to James Beard Award-winning chef Ashley Christensen, dating back nearly two decades to Enoteca Vin on Glenwood South. He was the opening sous chef at Christensen’s flagship restaurant, Poole’s Diner, and most recently was executive chef at her coffeehouse/gastro-diner, Joule.
St. Roch, which Gerhart opened in May in the former Joule coffee shop, was one of the most highly anticipated restaurant openings of the year. The location, in the heart of downtown Raleigh’s nightlife district, made for even longer odds against our party just walking in and getting a table.
But I figured if we got there early enough, we stood a decent chance. Experience has taught me that even the trendiest spots don’t typically get busy until at least 6:30 or 7 p.m. To be safe, we’d plan on arriving just before the restaurant’s 5 p.m. opening
Imagine my surprise, then, when we showed up at 4:55 p.m. and found nearly a dozen people waiting at the door.
I hadn’t reckoned on oyster happy hour. Every night from 5 to 6 p.m., and all night Tuesdays, oysters on the half shell are $1 apiece. And these are not your generic raw-bar-discount oysters, either. Every day, Gerhart selects one of the five or so varieties listed on the chalkboard – most from N.C. waters, with an occasional catch from as far away as New England – to feature. With non-discounted prices averaging around $2.50 a pop, it’s easy to understand the popularity of the happy hour offering.
We were able to score a table that night, but just barely. By 6 p.m., every seat in the place was full. That includes the dining room – a narrow urban-rustic space with barnyard animal prints on exposed brick walls – as well as the long mahogany bar where bartenders whip up first-rate cocktails, from classic Sazerac to Nancy’s Dress, a bewitching elixir of Trinidadian and Jamaican rums, balsamic vinegar, orange oil and lime.
The featured oysters that night were Rappahannock, a buttery, delicately briny variety from Virginia. When I returned a few days later (this time with reservations), Carolina Pearl oysters from the North River near Beaufort – plump, sweet and mildly salty – delivered the happy hour goods in style. And by “style” I mean that not only are oysters flawlessly fresh and expertly shucked, but they’re served with a downright exuberant array of accompaniments: cocktail sauce, lemon wedge, mignonette, pickled banana peppers, and fried saltines.
That’s right, deep-fried saltine crackers. They’re so addictive that, even if you’re an oyster purist who thinks anything more than a drop of lemon is sacrilege, you’ll find yourself spooning the other condiments onto the crackers and eating them separately.
If raw oysters (or N.C. clams, also available) aren’t your thing, roasted oysters are a winning alternative. They come half a dozen to an order, and you can get them any of three ways: BBQ’d (lemon, rosemary, cayenne, parmesan), Tasso’d (pork jowl tasso, sage, filé, gruyere), or Nori’d (miso, lime, chile and panko). If you can’t decide, get two of each, safe in the knowledge that in each case the toppings are commendably restrained, allowing the oyster to take its rightful starring role.
Gerhart does a mean fried oyster, too. A recent special paired half a dozen cornmeal-crusted oysters with an oat hotcake drizzled with chile-spiked cane syrup. Served in a miniature cast iron skillet, the Cajun-accented shellfish riff on chicken and waffles proved so popular that it earned a spot on the regular menu.
If you’re starting to get the idea that St. Roch is an oyster lover’s paradise, you’re right. But you don’t have to be a fan of the crusty bivalve to achieve gastronomic bliss here. In the space of just six or seven small plates and four entrees, the menu is an edible souvenir book of Gerhart’s life and travels, from his Louisiana roots (St. Roch is named for the New Orleans neighborhood where his family is from) to his culinary career in Raleigh.
Crab St. Roch, an elegant salad of lump crabmeat and poached shrimp served with crisp, lace-thin slices of Boulted ciabatta, is a fine place to start the journey. More adventurous types will find what they’re looking for in a boudin “tamale” topped with a dark, complex mole sauce, crumbles of house-made queso fresco and a fried egg.
Gerhart’s take on the bayou classic BBQ shrimp – colossal peel ’n’ eat beauties simmered in a rich Cajun-spiced broth amped up with lime, coconut and hot pepper jelly – is so good you’ll find yourself making plans to come back on a Wednesday night for the chef’s weekly seafood boil.
Other nights, you’ll find ample consolation in a bowl of clams braised in a miso broth punctuated with pork belly, preserved oyster mushrooms and a poached egg. Or a fried catfish filet beached on a dune of dirty rice (enriched, as it should be, with chicken liver) and topped off with a flotsam tangle of collard chow chow. Or a steak frites presentation featuring local rib-eye, expertly grilled, properly rested and finished with anchovy butter. Or the best red beans and rice this side of the Louisiana state line, served with a house-made red hot sausage.
In short, you pretty much can’t go wrong here. I have yet to encounter anything amounting to more than a quibble that can be chalked up to personal taste. I’d like to try the boudin in a less elaborate presentation than the tamale, something that wouldn’t overwhelm the characteristic mild flavor of the sausage. And as far as I’m concerned, the chocolate mousse could lose its shaved chocolate garnish, whose texture detracts from the silky smoothness of the mousse.
The beignets, on the other hand – airy pillows of fried dough buried under snowdrifts of powdered sugar and served with bourbon-caramel sauce – are exemplary.
Service is welcoming and attentive, and the wait staff commendably well trained for a new restaurant. You can generally count on them to provide accurate descriptions of the taste profiles of each oyster variety listed on the board.
But they can’t make an empty table magically appear. Get a reservation, even if – no, make that especially if – you plan on getting there when the restaurant opens.
223 S. Wilmington St., Raleigh
Cuisine: seafood, Cajun/Creole
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: welcoming and well-trained
Recommended: oysters (raw, roasted or fried), BBQ shrimp, fried catfish, red beans and rice, beignets
Open: Dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; parking on street and in Moore Square parking deck.
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.