It is a standard mark of restaurant excellence to anticipate and meet guests’ every need, from a fresh lemon wedge with shucked oysters to extra bread served alongside a bowl of pasta that’s more sauce than starch.
The Shellmore has those niceties down, but I’On’s newest gathering place — which looks like a wine bar, yet eats like a restaurant — doesn’t stop there. Chef-owner Eric Milley, another New York City émigré, has taken consideration to new heights by planting an unmissable metaphor for his cooking in the compact, sunlight-drenched room.
Granted, for most diners, imagery doesn’t rank right up there with clean forks. For a critic, though? Chef, you shouldn’t have.
This particular symbol is situated against the restaurant’s southern wall, a few paces away from the parabolic wood-topped bar that occupies half of the Shellmore’s span, and just to the left of a chalkboard displaying the evening’s five or six available dishes. The vintage walnut end table is covered with a fringed white placemat; its top shelf supports a stack of red transferware plates and Depression glass dishes.
So far, so dainty. But the table also conceals The Shellmore’s stereo system, making it the source of bold and confident music that doesn’t kowtow to the past. On a recent evening, the antique furniture was broadcasting Beyonce.
And that’s The Shellmore right there. Despite its heirloom ambiance (which, to be fair, might register as romantic in the right person’s company), The Shellmore is producing all kinds of assured and contemporary dishes, the best of which are intensely coastal.
Still, what’s most exciting about the whole operation is it provides conclusive proof that the restaurant model pioneered locally by Bar Normandy stands a fair chance of success. In fact, the future of area dining might have more in common with this two-employee, five-dish format than the vastness and glitz pursued by places such as Gentry Bar & Room, which this fall went belly up after six troubled months in business.
Just a few short years ago, that would have been a hard case to make. The Shellmore’s understated Euro-charm is very much its own, but it’s reminiscent of dinner service at Saint Alban, which lasted about two minutes before Brooks Reitz and Tim Mink ditched the whole café concept in favor of sliders and shaken martinis. Now, though, in the shadow of more and more hotels, neighborhood bistros feel primed to flourish. Pray they’re all as lovely as The Shellmore.
There are two ‘l’’s in Shellmore, unlike the street by the same name on which the restaurant sits. Presumably the spelling is a nod to the kitchen’s facility with raw oysters, the only constant on an ever-changing menu. There are typically one or two varietals on offer, but the sourcing isn’t as impressive as the shucking: Every oyster I ordered arrived clean and cold, its briny liquor still secure in the shell.
On an early fall evening, you could sit at a sidewalk table with a platter of raw oysters and glass of Muscadet, and know with certainty that your time wasn’t going to waste. (A quick word about the wine list: It’s stocked with a number of nuanced choices, but comes across as slightly staider than the food menu, which has the beckoning adventurous air of the first kid in his class with a driver’s license. How can you not be intrigued by an egg salad sandwich on a menu with chicken liver mousse and spaghetti Bolognese?)
But it’s more than worth sticking around to discover the range of seafood beyond the staple oysters, sold at happy hour for $1.50 apiece. Menu items come and go on a daily basis, so there’s no guarantee you’ll encounter a tuna crudo, prickled with espelette pepper and strewn with fregola, or have a chance to enjoy the shamelessly straitlaced bed of dressed iceberg lettuce beneath it. What’s relevant is the freshness of the fish, in this case throbbing with so much myoglobin that the pile of neatly cubed tuna could pass for jellied candies.
Seafood one step removed from its natural state is perhaps even more rewarding, whether pretty pickled shrimp repping the same pink-orange shade as the flowers on the rim of their Pinterest-friendly china plate, or braised shrimp in a silky broth that suggests spent shells are put to good use at the restaurant. Despite the corn and potatoes sharing the bowl, I’d wager customers wouldn’t flinch if presented with a straw.
In another chef’s hands, a Frogmore stew sized for one would spawn press releases and trend pieces. Milley, thankfully, is more interested in shellfish than shtick, so there’s no warning upon ordering that the “lil clam bake” will arrive in a deep tureen with an ornate cloche. It looks like the kind of a dish that would be set before a patrician in an 18th-century political cartoon.
Oh, but those clams. If this is how the landed class ate, it’s no wonder its members fought off democracy. Brimming with oceanic salt, the meaty littlenecks are perhaps the most magical thing to ever exist in such close proximity to parsley.
Dishes that come by the meaty moniker honestly are almost equally good, although the rare instances in which presentation standards slip tend to involve beef. Steak tartare, for example, is entirely obscured by an oozing egg, and the scant threads of Parmesan atop it are applied haphazardly.
Then again, perhaps the visuals are a subtle cue to mash the rich beef, tangy mustard and pickled red onions into a mad mix of flavor. It's exceeded on the luxury meter only by the thoroughly excellent chicken liver mousse.
On the turf side, the one dish that appears with something approaching regularity is the gnocchi, often seated in a winey and coarse ragu. Neither too firm nor too gluey, the ridged potato dumplings are astoundingly light. Scattered over tomato sauce, though, they look pale and plain and innocuous. Don’t be fooled.