They call him “The Bishop of Bivalves.”
“You could say I’m pretty respected in the oyster business,” says Sandy Ingber, executive chef of the Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant in Manhattan’s magisterial Grand Central Terminal.
Since 1996, Sandy has been king of the crustacean court at the sprawling midtown Manhattan restaurant, which seats more than 500 under its beautifully vaulted Guastavino-tiled ceilings. The not-your-average-seafood-joint is a superb answer to the bustling commuter’s grumbling tummy and an ideal destination for groups of after-work professionals, while its raw bar makes it onto the must-do list of many domestic and international tourists.
It’s fitting that the Oyster Bar remains a central part of New York culture. Before there was even a New York, the native peoples here nourished themselves with oysters as well as the Three Sisters crops – beans, corn and squash. (See related essay on New York.)
“The oyster in history was a very vital part of the economy of New York City, even from colonial times,” Sandy notes. “When the first settlers came here they found miles and miles of oyster shells. And oysters were extremely prevalent. Every shop carried oysters.”
In Mark Kurlanksy’s book, “The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell,” the author reminds readers that three of New York’s most famous features in the late 18th and 19th centuries were oyster production, alcohol consumption and prostitution. And since oysters are well-known aphrodisiacs, it’s not surprising that all this came together.
“In 1913, when they renovated Grand Central, they decided to put an oyster bar here and this has always been the iconic place for oysters since,” Sandy says. “One of the things about the Oyster Bar is, true to advertising, customers always know they can get exactly what they order in our restaurant.
“I go to Fulton Fish Market every day. I handpick all my fish. I do purchase some fish directly through the fishermen. …Relationships at Fulton Fish Market are very, very important and these guys know exactly the quality that I use and my specifications since I’ve been going to the same guys for 22 years. And another thing is, we pay our bills. They never have to worry about that.”
So what does the chef recommend?
“For beginner oyster eaters, we almost always recommend the Blue Points. They’re mild, easy to eat and also local. They’re our bestsellers.
“Of course, Wellfleets are some of our most popular oysters. A lot of standby oysters that we’ve had for a long time are Pemaquids from Maine. They’re a very good, briny oyster. Martha’s Vineyard is also very popular, and in Canada, Malpeque is by far the most popular. Names are very important to our customers. They’ve heard these names a lot. They often tell us exactly what they want because they know these names…. Then there’s the European flat oyster, Belon. It usually comes from the Brittany coast of France. It’s very briny with a metallic aftertaste.”
Sandy offers this rule of thumb: “Usually the more briny the oyster, the more sophisticated the slurper is.”
Of course, connoisseurs do get territorial when it comes to East Coast vs. West Coast.
“West Coast oysters mostly have the same flavor profile. Almost all of them are sweet, and there’s not that much distinction between most of them,” Sandy says. “Some have a little melon or cucumber, but they’re all basically sweet. They come in different sizes. We prefer to purchase West Coast oysters that are usually at least three inches,” he adds, mentioning that customers like the size of the popular sweet and creamy Kumamotos he obtains from California and Oregon.
Sandy suggests trying the Grand Central Oyster Platter ($19.95). It offers eight oysters from four different origins.
“We started that about 10 years ago, and one of the things that I love about it is it gives me a chance to really move oysters. If there’s any oyster that I really want to move, if people don’t know it and just don’t buy it, I put it on the platter and one, it educates the customer and two, I’m selling between 75 and 100 platters a day.”
Sit at red-and-white-checkered tables with friends, a date, kids or alone and slurp oysters on the half shell with a glass of Champagne, stout or at the suggestion of Alex Dimitropoulos – the Oyster Bar’s mixologist of more than 30 years – order the ZD 2010 Chardonnay, the Domaine Fournier Sancerre 2009, the Hermines D’Argent Muscadet Sevre Et Mains, or the J.J. Prum Bernkasteler Kabinett 2011 and Paul Blanck Grand Cru Schlossberg 2007 Rieslings.
The chef also recommends the Bloody Mary shooter.
“It’s basically tomato juice, horseradish, Worcestershire, Tabasco and to make a shooter, we do Bloody Mary mix, put in a Blue Point oyster and top it with Double Cross vodka,” Sandy says.
With oysters prevalent through the menu, he estimates, “Right now, we’re averaging about 3,000 to 4,000 oysters a day just on the half shell. That’s not including any of the cooked oysters that are on the half shell either.”
“Every day, we have a different oyster special. We do Buffalo oysters, which is a fried oyster mixed with a medium-spicy Buffalo sauce served with Roquefort dressing and celery.”
Sandy point outs the popularity of his fried seafood, says his clam chowder is “really kid friendly,” offers that he always includes three non-seafood dishes and mentions another popular dish:
“Today was the first day of sea urchin season. They’re absolutely wonderful and they’re perfect on the raw bar. When I say they’re undressed, I really mean it. All we do is cut the top off and give it to the customer and they take a spoon and dig out the roe and have a good time with it. All kinds of customers are ordering this.
Seafood to go
Sandy’s menu offers creativity, which will be spotlighted when “The Grand Central Oyster Bar Cookbook” is released early next year to commemorate the restaurant’s 100th birthday.
“It was always very straightforward American-style seafood, without having any European or Asian flair – just boiled fish, lobster and steamers and oysters on the half shell. But we’ve changed a lot with the times and … it’s fun for us, too,” says Sandy, a 1977 graduate of The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park.
One of the things Sandy loves is that “about 50 percent of our business is businessmen, people who are in Grand Central and commuters. …They’re people who have grown up coming into Grand Central with their father or their grandfather and they brought their kids to eat at the Oyster Bar. …They say, ‘My father would take me here, and I used to order the oyster stew when I was 8 years old and I still love it.’ There are so many stories like that so yes, commuters have always been a huge part of business.” In fact, “we’re really looking forward to the Long Island Railroad coming into Grand Central. …That’s supposed to bring over 100,000 more commuters daily.”
So, healthy eating aside, why should all these commuters skip the hot dog stand and the long pizza line for a bite at the Oyster Bar?
“Quality and we’re prepared,” Sandy answers quickly.
“They invented the New York minute for us, OK? They can come in, we have a takeout counter right here during peak times and they can get soup, sandwiches or full meals, all within five to 10 minutes,” Sandy says.
“We don’t sell raw oysters to go, that’s the only thing.”