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Food & Drink The shell is half full

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On the Half Shell is shy of oysters, but pleasant all the same

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Gulf Coast oysters appropriately prepared on the half shell can be ordered in either dozen or half-dozen servings. (Photos by Laura McKenzie)

For more than five years, Zinc has been the only late-night hangout in the block bound by Commerce, Presa, Market, and Navarro. Happily, that is no longer the case. After a very long gestation period, Medusa Lounge, a bar and art gallery, has opened in the space formerly occupied by the Parchman-Stremmel Gallery, and Cielo Lounge is scheduled, optimistically, to open sometime in April at the Navarro-Commerce corner. And, with little fanfare (or patronage, if my two visits are an indication), On The Half Shell quietly commandered a space with a front door on Navarro, and a back door that empties onto the expanded Charles Court. With the new Contessa Hotel coming in the late fall, the place should be a slam-dunk. In the meantime, you won't have to battle crowds to sample its wares.

The first thing to note is that this is an oyster bar with only one oyster: Texas Gulf. And one preparation: on the half shell. Although the menu doesn't say so, you can have either a dozen or a half-dozen. On my visit, the bartender/waiter/oyster-assembler first informed me there were no oysters at all, a proclamation quickly reversed. The irony was lost neither on me nor on all-trades Jack.

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Front entrance to On the Half Shell Oyster Bar.

The mollusks are served with two sauces, a shallot mignonette and a so-called chipotle cocktail sauce. To get right down to it, the mignonette needs work - not that it's so difficult to do - and the cocktail sauce, though punchy in a horseradish sort of way, was innocent of chipotle. My suggestion to the diner is to use plenty of lemon; the oysters were fresh and tasted clean, but otherwise lacked character. To On the Half Shell, I suggest offering at least one more kind of oyster: a briny, metallic Olympia from the Pacific Northwest, for example.

After I got over the notion that an oyster bar should be about oysters, there were other options on the menu, among them the jalapeño-inflected blue crab dip. Yes, I'd prefer a less mulched version, but the flavors were good; just picante enough and the quantity adequate.

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On the Half Shell's patio area is a pleasant oasis in the center of downtown.

Which brings up the accompanying wine question: Half Shell's list is unfortunately a little short on seafood-worthy wines - in fact, it's short on wines altogether - but I suspect that Fall Creek's chenin blanc, with its note of residual sweetness, would play against the chile heat just fine. The Estancia Pinnacles chard I ordered wasn't to be found, but Kendall-Jackson's VR Chardonnay, lightly oaked and boasting melon flavors and decent acid, was better than I expected and almost worked with both the crab and the oysters.

The Drylands New Zealand sauvignon blanc I sampled on my maiden visit would have been better with the oysters. This was actually a very good wine; I could have considered it a clean and snappy antidote to the rusticated and dimly lit interior and called it a day, no food required, but it also worked well with some happy-hour shrimp - and here's another suggestion: Visit On the Half Shell between 5 and 7 p.m. when there may be specials on oysters and shrimp. There's enough herbal essence in the wine to go wonderfully with an order of very good olives spiked with toasted fennel seed, and maybe even the smoked salmon or edamame beans with lime. Cajun mustard remoulade and horseradish cocktail sauce are fine with the perfectly cooked shrimp.

On The Half Shell Oyster Bar

202 Navarro
222-2171
Noon-2am everyday
$4-11.99
Credit cards accepted
Wheelchair accessible
There are little things the bar still needs to work out: The oysters were served with cellophane-wrapped crackers tossed unceremoniously atop them, the napkins are either too small or are paper towels of the men's-room variety. Eventually, more wines should be added to the inadequate list, such as more sparklers and reislings, a few crisp Sancerres, and a grüner veltliner or two. (Martinis, on the other hand, are available in spades, and there is an ostentatious bottle of Louis XIII Cognac displayed behind the fully stocked bar.) But all in all, the place is pleasant, the jazzy music good, and the price is generally right. And come the end of April (let's say end of May at least) you can even bar hop among four choices in one block. This is what I call critical mass, and we need more of it.


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