Our server at Ways N Means Oyster House was obviously new, but then so was everyone else. The restaurant had barely been open a week, and midway through her enthusiastic soliloquy on how the chef, Conrad Gallagher, was Michelin-starred and the sole he cooks comes straight from Holland, she asked to borrow the menu I was holding to jog her memory on what else to say. By that time, I was already distracted by the bread guy. He brought a tray of four varieties of sliced loaves, the best of which was the Guinness bread, a sweet, oat-studded, dark-as-a-brownie rectangle that crumbled with the moist consistency of a muffin without actually being one.
We slathered the bread with Irish butter from a tall, undulating column that had the vibrant yellow of an egg yolk. I flagged down the bread guy as he passed by to ask for more of that bread to smear with more of that butter. But a few minutes later, our server returned to deliver bad news: The kitchen was out of the razor clams I ordered. To mitigate my disappointment, I considered one of the shellfish towers. But then I came to my senses: The $65 appetizer of half a lobster, oysters, clams, crabmeat, shrimp and a couple of crab claws was already twice the price of an entrée, and that was for the cheaper tower called the Queen. The King—which added periwinkles, an abalone and half a crayfish—was $20 more, practically a ransom for Henry VIII himself.
To be fair, that's about the going rate for similar towers at Mastro's and other places. But it forced me to take stock of where I was: in an A-frame building that used to house Spiros, a greasy spoon that served pancakes for breakfast and fried chicken for supper. Now it hosted a chef whose website biography name-drops Boulud, Ducasse and Ripert. And then there's that Michelin star Gallagher earned when he was 25, the youngest chap ever to do so. You would think this Irishman lost if you didn't know he now lives in Orange County. Later, I'd see him in the flesh—an oak tree of a man, older than he looks on the restaurant's website. He went past my booth to greet a couple who had summoned him from the kitchen to ask for a picture.
In the meantime, I'd started scooping up the salmon rillette he'd presumably made just before he came into the dining room. And it was a marvelous mélange of what seemed to be three different textures coming from one fish. In every scoop of this glorified party dip, I tasted the fluffy base texture of poached, the depth of smoked and, if I'm not mistaken, the silkiness of raw.
Then came the bamboo-steamed halibut, an iceberg-sized hunk of pure whiteness perched atop a mound of shredded braised oxtail—a surf-and-turf combo I hear Gordon Ramsay's restaurant in West Hollywood also offers. Gallagher cooked his fish perfectly, the boulder shearing off as though wet tissue paper and disintegrating in the mouth, its mildness becoming the blank canvas for the beefy and salty brush strokes of the oxtail.
A return trip I made to the restaurant a week later was less exemplary, though. The bread guy only came around after I made increasingly desperate requests to our server. And when it was finally offered, the loaf didn't come with the dramatically sculpted Irish butter from a week before, but a near-frozen, pallid-looking ball that my server assured me wasn't just normal butter. Sometime after we finished a wonderful crab cake compacted between two crisply fried discs of kaitifi, the belated amuse bouche finally arrived. And when the server brought out the three kinds of oysters we ordered, he did so without telling us which bivalves were which. Worse: The kitchen had run out of razor clams again.
“How about some periwinkles?” I asked.
“No,” our server said, sensing my growing frustration, “we don't have that either.”
I resigned myself to just that Holland-imported sole, which was a revelatory piece of fish—a bone-in, naturally milky, 1.25-pound swath of moist flesh cooked simply and served with a grilled lemon and some spinach. I ate it with a side of Colcannon mashed potatoes so smooth they could've been clotted cream. My date ordered the salmon with couscous and ratatouille that neither of us liked nearly as much as the sole.
For dessert, we ordered the strawberry “Eat and Mess” meringue that floored us a week earlier—sliced strawberries embedded in a thick, almost-solid block of Chantilly cream with crumbles of meringue folded into it, served with a side of vanilla ice cream. This week, though, the half-melted ice cream was mixed into the Chantilly, diluting its greatness. We left the restaurant kind of sad about the dessert, but sincerely hoping the dish didn't portend Gallagher's future here in OC, where the Michelin committee has yet to visit.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.