There’s nothing quite like cracking open the shell of an oyster. After all, there’s always the chance you might find a smooth, beautiful pearl inside—but that’s not all there is to it. Eating a fresh oyster is about more than just taste: if it’s fresh enough, an oyster can evoke the faint saltiness of the seaside breeze and the wide, endless expanse of the sea.
And now you can enjoy a true coastal dining experience in downtown Knoxville. The owners of Nama and corporate executive chef Anthony Fowler recently teamed up to create a new restaurant concept. In April of 2012, they opened Shuck Raw Bar & Ale in the old Nama building on the 100-block of Gay Street.
We’ve all heard the saying that one should only eat oysters in months whose names contain an “R,” but this, Fowler says, is an old wives’ tale. It may have held true in the days before refrigeration and modern transportation, but oysters are now available and safe to eat throughout the year. That was, of course, one of the first things he looked into before the development of Shuck began in earnest. All of the seafood served at the restaurant is no more than a day from swimming in the ocean, and while certain varieties of oyster are only seasonally available, there are always several options to choose from at Shuck.
As he began work on menu development for Shuck Raw Bar, Fowler traveled around the Southern coast of the United States for a taste of how other raw bars operate. He and his wife spent about a week eating at four or more restaurants per day in Georgia and South Carolina. That trip helped Fowler to understand what a typical raw bar offered—and gave him ideas for starting something truly new.
Fowler noticed during his travels the rituals associated with eating oysters: a few drops of hot sauce, a single cracker, maybe a twist of lemon. He decided to help his clients find the perfect flavor by offering topped oysters: from Shooter Oysters with Bloody Mary mix, lemon, and Tabasco to Mexican-inspired Chimi Oysters with jalapeño and a cilantro chimichurri, he has brought international inspiration to a traditional delicacy.
Still, Fowler knew that in order to bring a raw bar to the Knoxville market, he needed to do it in a way that fit Knoxville’s tastes. So while Shuck does have a variety of raw options, including oysters and ceviche, the menu also includes salads and cooked foods. The kitchen for the former sushi restaurant boasts only a fryer and a very small range, and all of the menu items are prepared on the equipment available. Rather than being limited by the space, Fowler just developed creative menu items that could be cooked on site.
Some of his most popular dishes include the Oyster BLT, which includes cornmeal-fried oysters and a chipotle-tomato jam, and The Tower, a fresh dish that pairs shrimp and crab with lettuce and avocado. A good selection of wines, beers, and cocktails rounds out the menu.
The small venue, like the original Nama, provides a fun and intimate setting. A long bar and half a dozen booths fill up the small space, though the high ceilings keep the venue from feeling crowded. With seating for only 40 people, however, the wait for a table can sometimes be long. In order to transform this seeming disadvantage, however, Fowler has struck up a bargain with the coffee shop across the street. Guests can spend their wait having a cup of coffee or a beer, and the Shuck staff calls the coffee house when the next table is ready.
The Nama family of restaurants is planning to expand still further, and construction is underway on a second Crù Bistro and Wine Bar, which will be located next to Shuck. The hope, says Fowler, is that soon guests will be able to enjoy a glass of wine or a cocktail at their sister restaurant whenever there’s a wait for a seat at Shuck—and that sounds good to us!