Thursday, March 4, 2019
Had lunch today with a couple of friends at Locals Oyster Bar in the new Transfer Co. Food Hall. It was my first meal there, though I’ve willingly stood in long lines at farmers markets to buy a piece of fish from Locals Seafood to take home and cook on the grill. I’ve enjoyed their fresh-from-the-coast seafood in restaurants, too, more times than I can count.
Now the Locals folks have teamed up with Person Street Bar to open a combination seafood market, restaurant and bar. They landed Eric Montagne, a South Florida native who was formerly executive chef at Vivian Howard’s Boiler Room in Kinston, and more recently Standard Foods, to helm the kitchen crew.
To say I’ve been looking forward to eating here would be an understatement.
I got there early, had time to scope out the place. The food hall is still a work in progress, Locals being one of just a handful of vendors that have opened for business. They’re already doing a brisk trade, though, I’m guessing partly because of Locals Seafood’s strong reputation. The market’s mouthwatering display of fresh fish, seafood salads and oysters and clams spilling out of wire baskets onto crushed ice can’t hurt, either.
When my lunch companions got there, we ordered at the counter and grabbed one of the high-top tables in the food hall common area. We hadn’t been chatting for long when we were notified by text (they take a cell phone number when you order) that our food was ready.
One of my friends had ordered the shrimp po’ boy, and one opted for Locals’ take on fish and chips — today, speckled trout in a light cornmeal breading. I got the grilled fish sandwich (today’s catch was Almaco jack, a mild white fish with a firm, tuna-like texture). I splurged on a side of fries with optional bottarga, which I had to Google to learn is salted, cured fish roe. The bottarga — which turned out to be a sprinkling of yellowish grains barely larger than salt crystals — was more subtle than I’d expected, adding a salty note and a hint of umami to the crispy skin-on fries.
An enthusiastic thumbs up from all three of us. Can’t wait to get back.
Saturday, July 6
Took a little longer to get back than I expected. Ah, the busy life of the restaurant critic.
Brought my wife this time for dinner, sat at the counter. Started things off with — what else? — an assortment of raw oysters. All were flawlessly fresh and cleanly shucked. I expected no less.
Sticking with the oyster theme for the next round, my wife raved about the juicy fried oysters in the Calabash oyster roll, crammed into a New England-style split-top bun lined with oyster may and grilled cabbage slaw. I managed to snag a bite (okay, two) and heartily agreed.
I ordered the tuna bloodline burger, which our server explained was made by grinding the bloodline (that dark, often fishy-tasting line that runs down the middle of fish) and other fish trimmings, and forming them into a patty. She also warned that it’s an acquired taste, and she was right. Still, Locals’ waste-nothing philosophy is commendable.
Our sides were a mixed bag: on the one hand, a local tomato and corn salad was so good we wished we’d ordered two; on the other, hushpuppies were doughy in the center.
A chink in the armor? Maybe just a small one, but it gave me an excuse to come back for a third visit.
Sunday, July 14
Four of us this time — another couple, old friends and veterans of many review dinners, joined my wife and me. We sat at a table in the back corner, at the end of the bar, which turned out to be noticeably quieter than anyplace else I’ve sat.
The meal got off to a promising start with well-made cocktails (a glass of Austrian pinot noir for our oenophile friend) and the Carteret cracker snacker dip — more of a spread, really, of shredded smoked fish served with pickled red onions, lemon wedges, and a small sleeve of Captain’s wafers.
Unfortunately, the next course didn’t live up to that promise. The oysters and shrimp in the Calabash baskets that two of us ordered were so small it was difficult to tell which was which. On the bright side, the hushpuppies were on point this time. Fish and chips was a keeper, too, as was a blue crab roll, the crabmeat simply dressed and heaped generously into a split top roll.
I was puzzling over how to combine these three different experiences into a single star rating, when the bartender brought the check. He had been waiting on our table, even though Locals was a counter-service restaurant, partly because we were seated near the bar and the place wasn’t busy — and partly, it turns out, as practice for the following week. This section of the restaurant was about to become a full-service dining room with an expanded menu on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
Oh well, guess I’d have to come back to check it out.
Saturday, Aug. 10
Just my wife and me this time, seated one table over from where we sat last time. The seafood charcuterie board was impressive in terms of quality and variety — house-cured bluefin tuna belly, swordfish pastrami, yellowfin tuna chorizo and tuna rillette, plus assorted pickles, Dijon mustard, and crusty bread. Quantity, on the other hand, not so much. There couldn’t have been much more than 2 ounces of seafood — total — on that platter. Let’s see, at $17 for the charcuterie board, that works out to $136 a pound.
Entrees arrived, and all was forgiven. My grouper chop (named for its bone-in-presentation), served on a bed of lady pink peas, Jimmy Nardello peppers, and oyster mushrooms, was one of the most memorable fish dishes I’ve had in recent memory. Nor is either of us likely to forget the blue crab and tomato pie my wife ordered, a first for both of us: crabmeat-studded ricotta filling, topped with thinly sliced local tomatoes, and baked in a rustic pastry crust.
The meal ended on a much higher note than it began. The whey caramel tarte, a wedge of caramel and chocolate pudding as rich and dense as ganache, was excellent. Grilled peaches and cream, garnished with a Campari drizzle and a bronze fennel frond, was even better.
Our server was friendly and eager to please, though he was still clearly learning the table service ropes. It’s still early days, though, and I’d be surprised if service doesn’t improve with time. A perfect excuse, come to think of it, to pay Locals another visit a few weeks down the road.
Locals Oyster Bar
500 E. Davie Street, in Transfer Co. Food Hall, Raleigh
Rating: 3 1/2 stars
Atmosphere: industrial modern, food hall in a converted bus line garage
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: still learning the ropes but attentive and eager to please
Recommended: raw bar, grilled fish sandwich, Calabash roll, blue crab roll, Carteret cracker snacker dip, grouper chop, blue crab and tomato pie, desserts
Open: food hall counter open for lunch and dinner daily; full-service in the dining room, dinner Thursday-Saturday.
Reservations: recommended for dining room
Other: full bar; accommodates children; minimal vegetarian selection; patio; parking on street and in small lot next to the food hall.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.