“If you don’t love life, you can’t enjoy an oyster.” So wrote Eleanor Clark nearly a half-century ago in her brilliant, charming (and National Book Award-winning) book “The Oysters of Locmariaquer” (Harper).
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Reading Clark on the subject of oysters is almost as much fun as eating them. Here’s how she describes experiencing a great oyster on the half-shell: “There is a shock of freshness to it. ... Some piercing intuition of the sea and all its weeds shivers you a split second from that little stimulus on the palate. You are eating the sea, that’s it, only the sensation of a gulp of sea water has been wafted out of it by some sorcery. …”
Sorcery, indeed. And though you can find raw oysters any time of year, and at several Louisville restaurants, the true season runs from September to April, and if you’re looking for great oysters, you might naturally look for a place that includes the word in its name.
In Louisville, that means Z’s Oyster Bar & Steakhouse. Founded by Mehrzad Sharbaiani a dozen years ago, the Z’s location near Hurstbourne Parkway (101 Whittington Parkway) immediately became a popular and influential part of the city’s fine dining scene, both with customers and critics. A few years ago, Sharbaiani ventured downtown with Z’s Fusion — featuring, as the name suggests, “fusion” cuisine.
Earlier this year, Sharbaiani stepped away from the “Fusion” concept and decided to repurpose the space as Z’s Oyster Bar & Steakhouse — Downtown. An excellent move, if you ask me. And with the fall arts scene upon us (not to mention the upcoming basketball season), Z’s Oyster Bar & Steak House — Downtown adds a great new element to the metropolitan heart of the city.
The space (once home to Kunz’s The Dutchman) is one of the most smartly designed dining rooms in the city. Details like hand-blown glass, tan (rather than white) tablecloths, warm light, a glittering bar, thoughtfully configured seating that conveys a sense of intimacy (as well as ample space for private groups), and a river of blue that runs across the ceiling as a metaphorical tribute to the Ohio River make it an outstanding setting for special-occasion dining. On the other hand, the overall tone is pretty much the essence of what Louisville dining is about: casual, inclusive, expert and friendly.
Beef dominates the menu (along with pork chops, $28.95; rack of lamb, $49.95; duck breast, $27.95, and the like), and steaks run in price from $36.95 (14-ounce strip) to $69.95 (24-ounce Porterhouse). An 8-ounce filet runs $37.95.
Those levels are pretty well aligned with other upscale Louisville steakhouses — and when it comes to preparation and presentation, the kitchen at the downtown Z’s executes at the highest level, with a focus on simple, transparent preparations and quality ingredients — whether the plate under consideration holds a thick, perfectly grilled strip steak, a plate of steamed crisp-tender asparagus in pecan brown butter ($7.95), or a luxurious bake-up of spinach, bacon, mushrooms and onions under Mornay ($6.95).
Menu standards, like clam chowder ($8.95), big, tender shrimp served with cocktail sauce on a bed of ice ($4.50 each), or a bright iceberg wedge with bacon, tomatoes, eggs and croutons ($6.95), are always reliable. And if you’re looking for a reasonably priced way to experience the restaurant, the lunch menu, which includes a great blackened burger (topped with peppers, onions and blue cheese, $9.95), a fancied-up BLT ($6.95) and a few entrees in the low teens, is pretty enticing.
But it’s executive chef Kevin Rice’s list of weekly specials that will keep you coming back. That’s where you’ll find the outstanding seafood offerings. On any given week, you’ll find five to 10 different oysters on offer. All are shipped in from the Pacific Northwest. All are pristine and perfectly shucked. There’s always an assortment that runs from sweet and delicate to big and briny. And they always come to the table gleaming on a bed of ice, looking like moist gray gems. (Oysters recently have been priced at $13.95 for a half-dozen, but in October, when Z’s celebrates its 12th anniversary, selected dozens will be available for $6.)
A couple of weeks ago, the weekly specials included a cast-iron pot full of Littleneck clams soaking in a spicy broth of white wine and smoked red peppers ($12.95) and a perfectly carved, Cajun-style blackened snapper with an alluring toasted pepper cream sauce ($31.95).
And let’s note: If your taste runs to classic European preparations — and you crave a bit of high-maintenance dining — Z’s offers things like sauteed Dover sole, finished tableside with lemon butter. And though there’s an addictive chocolate creme brulee on the menu, Z’s is — justly — famous for its over-the-top dessert souffles. Just remember to order that souffle early on — it’s prepared to order.
You can email freelance restaurant critic Marty Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org.