ATLANTIC CITY — In a summer that’s seen restaurant openings aplenty in and around Atlantic City, one seems to have captured the spotlight and public attention like no other.
That would be the latest enterprise from the renowned Dougherty family, Harry’s Oyster Bar and Seafood at Bally’s Hotel Casino, situated in a ground-level space previously utilized for that facility’s buffet.
Harry’s has quickly carved out a niche for itself in an intensely competitive marketplace. Which makes sense considering the planning and thought — 18 months worth according to co-owner Maureen Shay — which Atlantic City’s first family of restauranteurs put into creating their latest venture.
Having spent more than 100 years as the only operators Atlantic Avenue’s Dock’s Oyster House has ever known plus almost 10 rehabbing and reenergizing the city’s landmark restaurant, The Knife & Fork Inn, the Dougherty’s clearly know a little bit about what they’re doing.
At Harry’s, it really shows.
This starts with the space itself, wide, wood-toned and facing the Dennis Courtyard, one of Atlantic City’s most beautiful pieces of open real estate. It continues with a jaw-dropping central raw bar. Piled high with ice, this cool conglomeration of oysters, clams, shrimp and lobster was a welcome respite from the nearly triple-digit heat gripping our region on the night we supped.
Our meal began respectfully, with a half dozen bivalves, selected by their knowledgeable shuckers. They failed to disappoint, delivering two Malpeques from Prince Edward Island along with two Wiannos from Massachusetts and a pair of Chesepeakes from Maryland. Each variety was slightly different, some long and flat, others small and deep. Their common denominators were incredible freshness combined with flawless removal technique on the part of raw bar personnel.
Ever taken the time to watch a real pro shucker ply their trade? It’s almost astonishing, the sheer speed and efficiency of motion, especially considering how very dangerous this task can be. Our other starter, pulled pork sliders, wouldn’t be something you’d expect at a place with the name “Oyster Bar” in its title. But that’s part of the charm here, scads of variety. These juicy delights more closely resembled small pulled pork sandwiches rather than two-bite sliders. Topped with crispy fried onions, the piled-high pig was clearly the product of long, loving slow cookery. This produced meat truly fall-apart tender and loaded with plenty of sweet and smoky nuances.
Next up we sampled a pair of salads: timeless Nicoise and an Asian-themed honey soy. The former brought traditional accoutrement: sliced cherry tomatoes, cubed red potatoes, pitted black olives, green beans and a halved, hard-boiled egg. Arranged atop a bed of lime green butter lettuce, it’s soft, round leaves provided natural cups for the vibrant elements.
Centered on the wide plate, five chunky squares of ahi tuna, barely seared and properly cooled, performed their leading role admirably. My dining partners mix of shredded radicchio and cabbage, plus whole leaves of spinach, was accompanied by a ring of sweet Mandarin oranges at the plate’s edge.
Crunchy rice paper, strewn throughout, as well as a tangy, ginger-infused dressing made this item as memorable as it was generously portioned.
A few more facts you should know about Harry’s.
First of all, the atmosphere is wonderfully Jersey shore casual. Oyster crackers served in metal tubs with horseradish. Bar mops replace napkins — pure bloody genius. But make no mistake about it: this is no self-conscious homage, it’s the real deal. Second, Harry’s is a fun, boisterous, sometimes loud environment. Ideally suited for families, even those with very small children.
This all makes sense from a strategic point-of-view. This place nicely fills a void that the Dougherty’s other restaurants, each a bit more formal in style, do not. Third, about the menu; patrons here select from classic seafood fare, lighter stuff like fried calamari, wings and shrimp, various clams and nachos (psst, try ‘em loaded with pulled pork) plus seven salads, 10 sandwiches and of course, that sprawling raw bar.
If you can’t find something you like here, we feel sorry for you.
“Food writer 101” says that whenever presented with the opportunity, order the house signature entree. On this occasion, it was a real no-brainer. Harry’s clam bake promises clams, scallops, mussels, a one-pound lobster, corn on the cob, red bliss potatoes and chorizo. We requested and received this monster kettle o’ seafood sans the mussels. In a lovely gesture of accommodation, the kitchen clearly increased the clam content to compensate. Nice touch, chef.
All those disparate ingredients remained firm and juicy, despite their widely divergent cooking times. This is the kind of dish that can become a nightmare in the wrong hands. Add scallops too early and they will turn into mushy slop. Clams, conversely, become hardened little discs and inedible. No such problems here, and we haven’t even mentioned what is perhaps the dish’s finest quality. All those lovely ingredients lounged in a mildly spicy tomato-based broth, made rich and deep with flavor from what Cajuns call “trinity” — diced onions, celery and peppers.
Finishing our meal, my companion couldn’t resist the carrot cake, highly touted by our server. Her advice proved solid — the seven-layered creation was more an event than mere dessert. n
Harry’s Oyster Bar & Seafood Where: Bally’s Hotel Casino (Dennis Courtyard) Phone: 431-0092 On the Web: harrysoysterbar.com