Olympia Oyster Bar Combines Cocktail Talent with Gussied-Up Mollusks

North Mississippi Avenue has a new place to slurp.

By Benjamin Tepler March 1, 2016 Published in the March 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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Northwest oysters with pomegranate, toasted quinoa, and basil

Portland is crazy for oysters right now, with every quadrant in the city boasting its own dedicated spot—from Roe’s thrice rebranded B&T Oyster Bar to North Portland’s Eat. The new Olympia Oyster Bar on North Mississippi Avenue rides the briny hype, hoping to elevate the humble bivalve with its Asian- and Latin-inspired small plates. Results, so far, are promising.

For oyster lovers in search of the quintessential raw experience, the spare space’s small bar holds a curved, ornate ice chest of craggy, Northwest-grown half-shells, complete with a cheat sheet of flowery tasting notes: from Chelsea Gems that are “tide-tumbled” with “notes of ocean, slate, and cucumber” to Flats “beach-grown in the tidal lagoon of Lopez Island,” “authoritative,” with hints of “sweet butter.”

Behind that bar, staff skillfully shake up a short list of classic cocktails conceived by Ryan Magarian (Oven & Shaker) and pour well-chosen glasses of sparkling wine. Trust the house to select a dozen “chef’s whim” oysters, then sip a dry, arctic gin martini, and brace for briny pleasure.

Ambitious eaters can dive into a global small-plates menu—oddly organized as “naked,” “dressed,” “the world is your oyster,” and “delicatessen”—with more mixed results than the raw choices. Rather than go the Rockefeller route, Olympia dishes the kataifi, named for a tangle of Middle Eastern phyllo in which the oyster is fried, and served with smoked avocado purée and microcilantro. It looks like Cthulhu but nicely balances a trifecta of spicy, sweet, and crunchy. The most substantial dish, the Veracruzan chilpachole, is part Mexican sopa, part pumpkin pie, with deep baking spices that warm the soul and baffle the palate.

Olympia (no relation to Olympia Provisions) is still experimenting with its menu—still forming an identity. At its core, it’s an earnest oyster joint with a creative vision and expertly made cocktails. And that’s great for the Mississippi neighborhood. But if the kitchen can find its voice in a city of oyster lovers and hone its meandering menu, Olympia could be much more.

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