The scene: Oyster bars have a rich history in American cuisine, and several of the oldest eateries in the nation are shucking specialists. Yet as a category, oyster bars are so classic as to not be trendy and are generally overlooked in the media. This is especially true in Las Vegas, which has a large subculture of oyster bars, most of which are very popular with locals, yet remain off the radar for visitors.
This is a shame, because they offer one of the best intersections of value and splurge-style dining decadence in the city. Restaurant critic Mike Hiller (EscapeHatchDallas.com), who covers the Vegas dining scene for The Los Angeles Times, is a big fan of the city’s oyster bar scene.
He’s been to them all, but when pressed, he recommended Harrah’s Oyster Bar as his top pick for its combination of value, quality, variety, and especially its signature dish, the oyster pan roast. Since my visit, the restaurant rolled out a new, updated menu with a few minor item changes, higher prices and a longer official name, The Oyster Bar and Grill at Harrah’s Las Vegas.
This low-key restaurant, which looks a bit like an airport bistro at first glance, sits right on the casino floor with no outside walls and features a large central island counter where you can sit and watch the chefs and shuckers at work. It’s surrounded by regular tables for a more full-service experience.
Harrah’s, in turn, is located smack-dab in the heart of the busiest part of the Strip, the most heavily-visited part of Las Vegas Boulevard.
Reason to visit: Grilled or raw fresh shucked oysters, crab cakes, oyster pan roast
The food: Oysters are the specialty, offered a four different ways. The two best ways to experience their quality and freshness are simply raw and freshly shucked, or grilled, a classic and somewhat rare New Orleans presentation that allows the meat to cook in the shell in its own rich juices.
Diners have their choice of several regional varieties, all of which are flown in daily, and staff are happy to prepare sampler platters of a dozen split into two, three of four varieties. I recommend the smaller, sweeter, cold-water oysters from the Pacific Northwest or New England and Canada’s Atlantic coast.
Even if oysters aren’t quite your thing, there’s still plenty to recommend at The Oyster Bar and Grill. Seafood in general – and shellfish in particular – is well represented. Among the most popular starters are the Maryland crab cakes, featuring lots of rich lumps of blue crab, the species that made the Chesapeake Bay famous among seafood junkies. Another favorite is the tiger prawn sauté: tail-on jumbo shrimp, perfectly cooked with snappy exteriors and juicy meat, served over slices of French bread.
It’s hard to go wrong when it comes to appetizers, but the main events here are the one-pot dishes, such as jambalaya and the New England shellfish boil, a classic combination of Maine lobster, mussels, clams, shrimp and spicy sausage with corn on the cob, all cooked together.
But the reason many regulars come back here over and over again is the oyster pan roast, a classic American oyster bar dish based on traditional French culinary techniques. “Harrah’s pan roasts are second to none,” says Hiller.
There are a lot of different ways to accessorize an oyster pan roast. You start with oysters and cream – and at Harrah’s, they add generous portions of large shrimp, clams, mussels, crab claws and half of a Maine lobster in its shell, along with roasted tomatoes, bell peppers and chicken stock. That’s a lot of great seafood in a rich, reduced cream sauce flavored by all the shellfish.
Not everything here is a home run. The overdressed twin mini-lobster rolls can’t compete with the New England originals. On the dessert front, the Key Lime pie will disappoint fans of the dish, who tend to be very demanding. The chocolate mousse cake, while solid, feels like it came out of a box, in sharp contrast to all the freshly cooked seafood.
Service is perfunctory and a bit rushed – as if they are trying to turn tables quickly – and the wine list is less than impressive. But in a city where it is very easy to spend three figures on a single lobster entree, the freshness, quality and variety of seafood here is hard to beat, especially at these very reasonable prices and portion sizes.
Pilgrimage-worthy? No, but oyster fans and shellfish lovers should make the effort.
Rating: Yum! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: Harrah’s Hotel & Casino, 3475 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas; 702-369-5000