The ML Team Eats Through the Entire Grand Central Oyster Bar Take Out Menu
Grand Central’s Oyster Bar take out window has been a longtime staple of the Midtown Lunch Lenten coverage- after all, nothing says Fat Tuesday like a nice Fried Oyster Po’ Boy. And yet it still remains one of the more underrated, under-reported gems of the New York lunching scene. We couldn’t believe there has never been an official full +/-, so last Friday six of us converged on Grand Central to try each and every ML priced item on the menu.
First the Grand Central Oyster Bar basics. Located in the lower level concourse, the Oyster Bar takeout window is open Monday through Saturday from 11:30am until 6pm. I’ve never eaten at the lunch counter inside, but I understand you can get the sandwich menu at the counter inside with waiter service. But in the spirit of Midtown Lunch–no fancy waiter service needed here–we picked up our orders from the counter and found seating in the concourse dining area.
Though the menu tends towards the pricier end of the ML spectrum, $6.95-$9.75 for a sandwich, there were only two items on the day’s menu, the Ipswich Fried Clam Sandwich and the Grilled Tuna Burger, that were out of the ML price range at $10.95 each. Here’s an item by item breakdown of what we had and how it rated.
The Fried Oyster Po’ Boy is one of the most popular items at the Oyster Bar and not surprisingly this deliciously greasy sandwich played well with the assembled midtown lunchers. Stuffed with crispy, freshly fried oysters and topped with tarter sauce on a dense chewy bun, this sandwich was highly satisfying. Both Clay and Jenn called it their favorite sandwich with Clay saying it was “worth a special trip to GCT just to get it.”
Blondie recently wrote up the Fried Cajun Rock Shrimp Sandwich so I’ll keep this brief. The sandwich has plenty of cajun battered popcorn shrimp and creole sauce. It’s kind of messy so be sure to have napkins on hand and watch your sandwich’s positioning to avoid shrimp escapage. This sandwich came on a squishy/fluffy brioche sort of bun, but as Clay noted it “didn’t really need the roll, served in a cup, it would make great popcorn shrimp on its own.”
The Maryland Crab Cake Sandwich comes with a marinara sauce, a little unexpected but was a pleasant departure from all the mayo-based sauces. The crab cake itself is a good quality, but it was pretty much overwhelmed by the big fluffy, brioche-like bun. Unless you’re dying for a crab cake sandwich, at $9.75 there are better ways to spend your lunch money at the Oyster Bar.
At $6.95 the Beer Battered Fish Sandwich is one of the cheapest options on the menu and high marks went to the batter itself. That said on price alone the $3.50 fried fish sandwich from Kim’s Aunt Kitchen is hard to beat and when you include the tax on the Oyster Bar sandwich, you can get two from Kim’s for the same price. While a good sandwich and inexpensive for the Oyster Bar, this sandwich itself isn’t necessarily enough of a draw on its own.
The Grilled and Sliced Tuna Sandwich with Tomato Salsa was a surprise all around hit and the hands down favorite of several lunchers, including yours truly. This is a sandwich that wouldn’t automatically be at the top of my list. Frankly grilled and sliced tuna really doesn’t sound all that exciting, especially not when there’s so much fried goodness available. At $9.75, if I wasn’t committed to trying everything on the menu I probably would have passed this sandwich by. And that would have been a mistake. This sandwich came on a dense, chewy bun and was filled with tons of tuna. Amy noted that “the salsa-like diced tomato and lettuce in the sandwich made it feel like the most complete lunch.” This sandwich got high marks in terms of value for the amount of tuna on the sandwich and made for a “nice lighter alternative to the rest of the sandwiches.” Some of the bites were semi rare, but most of the meat was cooked through. Even those who tend to favor rarer tuna said they would go back for this sandwich.
Lunchers were split on the Dungeness Crab Salad Sandwich. It all boils down to how you feel about mayo. Clay aptly described it as “slathered in mayo” and said he “thought it was a lobster roll” on first glance. Jenn drew similar comparison and “called it a great choice for those who love lobster rolls.” On the other side Jason found the sandwich disappointing and not all that flavorful. Though mayo-centric the sandwich did have a decent amount of filling. If you like mayo, you’ll enjoy this sandwich, if mayo is not your thing, skip this one. Note, they do have limited quantities of this sandwich daily. I placed our order at around 1:00pm and got the last one of the day.
If you’ve heard old time New Yorkers talk about the Oyster Bar, you might have heard them mention the classic Bouillabaisse, a house specialty. Made up of mussels, clams, lobster, and fish in a tomato and saffron broth, it goes for $27.95 a bowl. Definitely not a midtown lunch, unless someone else is picking of the tab on their corporate AMEX. But thankfully for us the Oyster Bar has a (somewhat off menu) Bouillabaisse Sandwich. You can find it listed on their online menu, but on my past two visits has been nowhere to be seen on the main menu board. Nonetheless the counter guys assured me that they pretty much always have it. The Bouillabaisse Sandwich was the most controversial lunch item we tried. Basically a it’s a fish stew ladled over bread with a garlicky saffron aioli on the side–to my eye it seemed to really only have fish and broth, I didn’t spot any of the fancy shellfish mentioned above. ML contributors were split on this one either they loved it or they hated it.
On the anti-bouillabaisse front Amy said it was her “least favorite and “seemed dull” and that the aioli was “the only thing that gave it flavor.” On the pro-bouillabaisse front this was Jason’s favorite sandwich overall because it had “a lot of fish” and the sauce had “a great flavor.” While the sandwich isn’t overly fishy, if you aren’t a big fish fan, this probably isn’t for you and there can be some bones so you have to watch out. The garlic aioli packs a punch in terms of flavor but you’d better have some Altoids on hand if you plan on talking to anyone post lunch. Bottom line, if you love fish and garlic and don’t mind a messy sandwich at $6.95 this is a great value. Be sure to check that your sandwich has a side of aioli, you’ll definitely miss it.
In addition to the seven sandwiches we tried the three available soups: Manhattan Clam Chowder ($5.95), New England Clam Chowder ($6.25), and Tuscan White Bean Soup with Florida Rock Shrimp ($6.95). The clam chowders are Oyster Bar standards and the third soup rotates on a seasonal basis. They sometimes have a Maryland She-Crab soup and in the summer their Lobster Gazpacho is light and refreshing.
The soups got high marks overall for quality and value especially when you consider that the ubiquitous Hale ‘n Heartys of midtown east charges you more for less. Some caveats: the New England Clam Chowder is super creamy. If you like a really creamy clam chowder there’s no way that this is a bad thing, but to some this soup might be a little too thick and “goopy.”
As the Manhattan Clam Chowder cooled, it took on more of a starchy and sort of goopy texture.
The Tuscan White Bean Soup had a lot of fans. This rosemary flavored bean and tomato broth was delicious and there were several meaty, perfectly done shrimp hiding at the bottom of the cup. Amy admitted she had been sick and nothing made her feel better than this soup and while tasty, she wouldn’t even have missed it if they did away with the shrimp.
All in all this was a successful lunch. For those out of the immediate Grand Central vicinity, I must caution that the takeout window gets crowded at peak lunch times and the wait time can seriously cut into your lunch hour. As one of the regulars behind me in line noted, “the Oyster Po’ Boys are awesome, but everyone orders them and they create a bottleneck.” If you’re able to escape for lunch and have a little more time on your hands the Oyster Bar is worth a trip to Grand Central for seafood fans.
THE + (What somebody who likes this place would say)
- If you want high quality seafood for under $10 in Midtown, this is pretty much it
- Soups are a good value considering quality and size
- The GC Oyster Bar is a NYC classic!
- You’re not finding anything better than this in the Grand Central Food Court
THE – (What somebody who doesn’t like this place would say)
- The bread-to-filling ratio is terrible on some of the sandwiches
- Wait time can be long
- What‘s up with all the mayo?!
- Screw quality… Kim’s Aunt Kitchen is half the price!
Grand Central Oyster Bar Take Out Window, 89 East 42nd Street (in the Concourse), 212-490-6650