UPPER WEST SIDE — Neighborhood residents slurp up oysters at a stunning rate, say the owners of The Smith, who had to hire more staff to shuck enough of the molluscs to keep up with demand.
The trendy eatery across from Lincoln Center opened in November and while many elements of the bar and restaurant, which is open almost 24 hours a day, have flourished, locals' reaction to the raw bar surprised co-owners Jeffrey Lefcourt and Glenn Harris the most.
"Oysters are like an epidemic: one tray goes out and then everybody wants them," Harris said.
On a sunny day when the 100-seat sidewalk cafe is in full swing, or on a weekend, The Smith easily sells 2,500 oysters, the owners said. They average about 2,000 oysters on other days.
The demand took the duo by surprise.
"We had to hire two more oyster shuckers than [the one] we originally planned for this location," Harris said.
Oyster season is coming to a close since the summer spawning months tend to yield fewer flavorful selections, yet the eating trend shows no signs of slowing, Lefcourt and Harris said.
Pre-theater time constraints add to the dish's popularity, Harris said.
"It takes a minute to slurp down oysters," he said, allowing diners to quickly dash off to the movies or Lincoln Center.
"There's a buzz about them," Harris said. "We knew we could do [oysters] well. We didn't know how big it could be."
While neighboring Bar Boulud and Cafe Fiorello also offer oysters, Lefcourt said it's The Smith's care with its raw seafood that sets it apart — from the way they ship their oysters in daily by truck to the way they store and shuck them.
The two men are very proud of their shuckers.
"We do oyster shucking contests in the kitchen," Lefcourt said.
The best shucker has to be able to open them quickly, preserve the liquid, not get any chips in the shell and not poke them or deflate them.
Harris, who is the executive chef as well as co-owner, said they sampled 20 different types of oysters to narrow it down to three that are permanently on the menu: Montauk Pearl from Long Island, Beau Soleil from New Brunswick, Canada, and Cotuit Bay from Cape Cod, Mass. Each sell for $3.25 a piece.
"I like the crispy brininess of East Coast oysters rather than the creaminess of West Coast oysters," said Harris, who also prefers them without sauce even though the restaurant offers two house-made sauces, one sweet and one spicy.
The Smith also sells oysters at its Midtown location, but "at brunch, we're selling more oysters [at Lincoln Center] than anywhere else," Lefcourt said.
Lefcourt's choice for the perfect cocktail to pair with a raw bar tower is the Sonata No.5: elderflower liqueur, mint, honey, sparkling white wine and lavender bitters.
"That would go very well," he said, while polishing off his favorite oyster, the Montauk Pearl.