A rambunctious night lead to a morning of regrets and growling stomachs. While purses could not be un-lost and shots of vodka could not go un-taken, our hunger could in fact be alleviated, the right way. I woke up craving oysters for some reason, a gourmande hangover of sorts. I’m not sure slimy bivalves were exactly what my companion wanted as well, but she had no specific preference, so we chose to brunch at Hank’s Oyster Bar on 17th and Q. I wanted to try somewhere new and was in a reviewing sort of mood, camera fully charged and as hungry as I was. And while I adore Pearl Dive Oyster Palace’s street-side nook of a bar in the summer, it’s not quite the right place for me on a cold February morning.
Hank’s is more accessible than I had first thought. I had called ahead to make a reservation a few hours prior and arrived at the door expecting a line of hungry brunch-goers, perhaps with mimosas in hand to ease the wait. It was by no means dead, but we were seated immediately and ordered our Micheladas and Bloody Marys to start. Both salt-rimmed, both containing slightly spicy, house-made tomato juice mix. One had vodka, the other a Lagunitas beer and an extra bit of lime juice for freshness. Neither was anything spectacular and my Michelada was actually somewhat watery – a fizzier brew could have been used, or perhaps the ratio of beer to tomato juice was off. They hit the spot nonetheless and fed the flames of hunger, until we were both on the verge of requesting oyster crackers to munch on as we waited for our food. But the crackers came on their own, along with a half dozen freshly shucked babes on a tray of ice. Red wine vin, grated horseradish, cocktail sauce, and an attentive server who carefully pointed out which oyster was which.
Shucking technique aside, there’s not much to say about a kitchen’s capabilities when it comes to raw oysters on the half-shell. This is especially true for the purist who does not apply mignonette. I guess the curation of the oyster list can receive praise – the selection proudly chalked up onto a huge board was a good one, mostly local with some not-so-local faves tossed in. I had New Points and Stingrays from the Chesapeake and Kumamotos, because I can’t help ordering them when they appear before me on a menu. I honestly can’t choose favorites, as I enjoyed them each in their own way. Kumamotos, the small and fruity little Japanese imports, were quaint and delicate; bite-sized bonbons of slippery, cool marine flesh. The Stingrays were just the opposite – plump and floppy, very mild in flavor. More of a textural thing with these guys. It was my first time trying New Points, famous for their gorgeous elliptical shells that have deep grooves filled up by the animal’s body. These were significantly meatier, firm though still smooth. The New Points were similar in flavor to Stingrays, though maybe slightly saltier. Icy cool and wet when sucked up between pursed lips. Each one felt like a splash of ice water on my overheated, pounding temples.
Hank’s became something more than just another restaurant the moment I bit into one of their fried oysters. In that moment, it officially joined the ranks of “the place where I had the best __ of my life.” This is not an overstatement in this case and it is indeed significant – I’ve had a myriad of fried oysters in my life. But Hank’s version surpassed all previous experiences. Usually ordering fried oysters is a bit of a compromise with dining companions who do not enjoy an oyster’s true personality – a briny, murky, squishy, juicy, endlessly refreshing thing. Fried oysters are often ordered by those who don’t “do” the bivalve raw bar because of that thing that stops them. A fried coat tastes like a fried coat. The crunch and the salty oil flavor are cheap tricks meant to mask the natural funk of the oyster. The process of frying dries the animal out, getting rid of that burst of marine juice so unique to it. But the flavor and juice happen to be the only reasons I pay $2 for something that contains 10 calories and does nothing to satisfy hunger. So I tend to only try oysters a la deep-fry under at least one of two conditions: 1) sharing the dish with a oyster-phobe, 2) at a place I do not trust with maintaining standards of freshness. As I perused the menu I stopped at “Fried Oysters……….$12” for only a few seconds before I confirmed that this situation met neither of those conditions. What I wasn’t expecting was the addition of a third condition. When I asked our waitress for suggestions she recommended the fried oysters, adding that they were a house specialty and their most popular item. “Better than the raw?” I asked. “Nothing is better than raw,” she answered, “But this is the second best thing.” And on the new condition of “3) when it’s a house specialty”, I ordered them.
And, no, nothing is better than raw, but Hank’s fried oysters are truly something worthy of becoming a D.C. landmark. For me, at least, it has. The swollen bellies of the oyster remained perfectly in tact throughout the frying process, the juices warmed through a little bit but did not dry up or pour out, only to get lost in the oil. Warming the oysters had actually enhanced the funky flavors of their juice even more. Lifting one up (with my fingers, so as not to prematurely pop the thing) I could already tell it would be good. It jiggled, dense and moist, amorphous from the ample guts swishing wildly around inside. A fantastically golden crust provided the initial crunch, followed by the juices flooding my mouth and coating it in a low-tide, stinky seaweed brine that transformed me into a lone barnacle on the side of a seafaring vessel. Recovering from the shock, my tongue was embraced by the pillow-soft flesh of the muscle, the texture of which resembled that of calf’s brain – firm but jiggly soft and smooth when mashed against the roof of my mouth. And then, the widely feared “green stuff” that I particularly enjoy. The liver, the intestines, the guts – all tasting the same as they do in any animal, funky and mineral and, well, innards-y. Of course the four different experiences (crunch, juice, flesh, cream of innards) are separate for miliseconds only. They blend together in an instant and result in what by my definition is the perfect mouthful, one that made my eyes close and my jaw stop chewing.
I reached for my drink to cool down only after the flavor had 100% faded from my palate, locked in my memory permanently. Oh yeah, there was also tartar sauce on the plate. I didn’t use any.
The brunch section of Hank’s cocktail list is not to be overlooked. Having already ordered and consumed the obligatory Bloody Marys, we decided to try two of their more creative creations. My first instinct was to go with the daily Megan’s Choice Punch, but this turned out to contained bitter things (Campari, bitters, Vermouth) and since my gut pH was already dangerously low, I went with something more light and sweet. Going by our server’s recommendations, we tried The Getaway and the Hanky Panky. The Getaway was made with vodka, grapefruit juice and a splash of housemade cinnamon-clove syrup. It had a good herbal quality which calmed the bitterness of the grapefruit and the drink wasn’t too boozy altogether. I enjoyed more the Hanky Panky, made with citrus vodka, housemade Limoncello and sparkling wine. Light, fizzy and simple, served in an elegant champagne coupe to make ya feel like a lady.
My heart set on a fully oystered-out meal, I also ordered the Hog Island Style BBQ Oysters, Chef Jamie Leed’s recipe inspired by the cuisine of Hog Island, California. The dominating flavors are those of of white wine, shallot and thyme, with a bit of fresh parsley, Tabasco and lemon juice in there as well. The oyster body is barbecued on the half shell after being doused in this sauce. The soft, springy flesh soaks up the flavors, which blend with the marine sweetness. The bread crumbs are added last. They crisp up and get a nice tan. Their texture is that of smooth sand on a sunny patch of a beach, the perfect contrast to the moist, juicy oyster buried underneath. There is a little salad of delicate baby arugula lightly dressed in a citrus vinaigrette, which proudly takes the title of “side” rather than setting for that inferior apellation of “garnish.” The dish is comparable to Pearl Dive’s grilled oyster with its spicy chili oil, but the wine-thyme sauce is more delicate and much less overwhelming in flavor.
My friend ordered Hank’s Crab Cake Sandwich, made with flaky local Blue. One “can I try?” bite lead to two, without apology. It was one of the best versions of the thing I’ve had to date. The flaky, moist, dense little puck crumbled into creamy chunks of fibrous crab between two fluffy buns. There was a very thin, crunchy breadcrumb crust on both sides of the cake, barely enough to stretch all the way to the edges. This contributed a caramelized, nutty complement to the naturally sweet meat of the milky white crab, without the “fried” flavor taking over. The sweetness was also offset by a touch of mustard and fresh parsley mixed into the cake. Topping the thing was a small dollop of classic remoulade, minimal in quantity to not overpower the very mild flavors of the meat.
As my friend has an allergy to carrots, she chose a side of Onion Rings to replace the cole slaw the crab cake usually comes with. A place like Hank’s really doesn’t have to have O-rings of high quality. But it does. The silky rings of onion caramelize as they are fried in a fluffy coat of batter, which my friend and I contemplated might have just been of egg white and flour. Fantastically crunchy but light. No dipping sauce necessary with these, just a pinch of salt.
But back to the fried oysters, which – again – were the best I’ve ever had. Thinking about them makes my toes curl tight. I will be back for those someday soon. In fact, the very next time I meet up with a friend or date for a drink and they ask me to pick the place it will be there. And the fat little bellies will be the first thing I order. And I will not be sharing them.