I don’t really crave seafood that frequently, so although I had always heard good things about the Sansom Street Oyster House, it was never really at the top of my list of places to check out. However, when Chester and I were trying to decide on a place for dinner this past Friday, I was won over by the fact that they had two soups on the menu that seemed like they would be perfect for a chilly evening.
The restaurant has been a Philadelphia institution since 1947, when Philadelphia lawyer Samuel Mink purchased a seafood restaurant called Kelly’s on Mole Street. It relocated to its current home in what used to be an old barber shop on Sansom Street, in the mid-1970s, and has been in operation ever since, with the exception of a brief period several years ago when it closed for renovations. Over the years, menu items have changed and pricing has increased, but three generations of the Mink family have kept up the tradition of the city’s old oyster houses, serving up good, fairly inexpensive food, in a casual atmosphere.
The restaurant doesn’t take reservations and was full when we arrived, so we had about a 20 minute wait for a table. The interior is very clean and open, with marble topped bars and tables, dark wood accents and exposed brick walls, which had been painted white to showcase an extensive collection of colorful, antique oyster plates (You know I wanted to steal a few of them for my eventual dish closet and I don’t even like oysters).
The centerpiece of the restaurant is the raw bar, where you can watch the staff shucking a regularly changing selection of oysters and clams as quickly as diners could order them. It’s nice to know that everything that ends up on the table is fresh.
Aside from the raw bar items, the menu is divided into small, appetizer sized plates such as roasted oysters and clams, grilled octopus, snapper soup and chowder. For a first course, Chester enjoyed a half-dozen of the sweet Kusshi oysters while I opted for the fat, whole-bellied clams fried clams (because I’m health conscious like that).
Larger, entrée sized plates include the crab cake, lobster roll and a clam bake for two. For my second course, I knew I was going for one of the soups, but debated a bit between the three-day fish chowder with smoked cod and the fisherman’s stew with shellfish.
I decided on the former because I had never heard of it before. I’ve looked up a few recipes since and found that in fact does take three days to make—one day to make fish stock, another day for the chowder base and the third day to put it all together with cream, potatoes and other ingredients.
I’m not sure if the Oyster House follows the same method, but the soup definitely had a rich, smoky flavor that made it seem like it had been simmering for a few days. I liked that the creamy base was not as thick as other types of chowder I’ve tried and that the potatoes were diced up into very tiny bits. I hate when you get big chunks of potato in soup that are way too hot to eat. Chester’s bluefish was also exceptional. It was grilled to perfection with a crispy edges and a tender center. I particularly enjoyed the velvety mashed sweet potatoes that accompanied it.
I always think that the dessert menus at steakhouses and seafood restaurants seem like afterthoughts, but the Oyster House’s actually had quite a few options that I wanted to try. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t resist the flourless chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream. The dense, fudgy cake was finished with sweet whipped cream and a dash of sea salt for an interesting mix of textures and flavors.
Having never visited before, I can’t comment on how this iteration of the Oyster House differs from the earlier versions, but I was really impressed by the whole experience and look forward to returning again soon. Many of Philadelphia’s long-standing restaurants (including seafood places, like Bookbinders and Philadelphia Fish and Company), have faded away and it’s nice to know that there are some places like this that have managed to keep thriving decade after decade.