F or the mollusk-obsessed, there’s more to the genuine oyster experience than the eating. For one thing, there’s a deep introspective decision to make at the moment of truth: Am I a condiment person or a purist, today?
Of course, after you’ve sifted through the existential questions, there is indeed the eating. Although the focused, upscale menu at Branford’s new Waterhouse Oyster Bar offers more than oysters, they’re a natural place to start.
The other natural place to start, given the name of the place, is the bar, and that’s where I chose to sit, surrounded by framed maritime prints and shelves of liquor, lit by a string of lights ensconced in overturned oyster baskets. (There are tall tables in the vicinity for those who want the casual feel without sitting at the bar bar.) The dining room next door features candlelit dining tables and a large black-and-white octopus print on the wall.
All in all, ‘understated nautical’ describes the atmosphere at Waterhouse, which is the latest venture of New Haven-area husband-and-wife culinary team Arturo (the head chef) and Suzette Franco-Camacho (the manager). Their credits include Tacuba Taco Bar next door and the now-closed but memorable New Haven restaurants Roomba and Bespoke, and Branford restaurant The Suburban. Says Suzette, whose grandmother’s last name provides the new establishment’s first: “We always wanted to do something seafood-focused.”
The result is a restaurant that celebrates life on the shoreline, and Branford specifically. One corner of the bar features the names of various sections of town (Short Beach and Pine Orchards among others) written cheerfully on a chalkboard. But it also puts its money where your mouth is, carrying plenty of local offerings, like the crisp Thimble Island Brewing Company draft I ordered, which made for perfect pairing with seafood.
Speaking of which, back to the oysters. I tried the four varieties on offer that evening—two from Washington state and two from Connecticut, including Branford’s Stony Creek, which were delivered by a local oysterman that day. He often shows up on his bicycle with that day’s catch, the owners tell me.
The eastern oysters, always my favorite, are briny and bracing, like the ocean, while the westerns are comparatively mellow and smooth. Lemon wedges, of course, as well as a classic cocktail sauce and a vinegary house-made mignonette, are arranged on the large serving tray of ice, with oyster names written in marker on small wooden signs to help distinguish this from that.
In addition to the raw bar, there are small plates and full entrees, meaning diners can design their meal accordingly (a few oysters or clams and a small plate or two would make a fine dinner). Of note among the smaller dishes is Warm Ricotta ($9), served with sweet, roasted tomatoes, and the Roasted Beets ($10), accompanied by fresh, creamy burrata and walnut dressing.
Entrees—on the pricier side but clearly carefully prepared and quite delicious—range from a “Simply Grilled” fish (you choose which one), at market price, to the more complex. The Wild CT Scallops ($27) are served with a golden raisin/onion ragout. The Pan Roasted Atlantic Cod ($27) is paired with clams and vegetables arranged in a creamy sauce, and topped with a glorified potato chip, making what is considered a basic fish decidedly less so. Chef Arturo follows the same line of thinking with his Steamed Clams ($25),which are joined by sweet corn and chorizo. There’s Grass Fed Hangar Steak and Herb Roasted Chicken for the landlubbers.
In addition to the beer offerings is a wine list Franco-Camacho says she chose to complement the seafood-strong menu, and there’s a full bar for cocktail lovers. Hoping to reel in Branford’s lunch crowd, they’ll soon open Seawitch, a sandwich, smoothie and salad counter in a small space at the front of the bar during daytime hours.
Arturo and Suzette—who, it turns out, first met while working at the same restaurant—are hoping to win over a loyal fan base of regulars in Branford and beyond. “The first year, you’re the outsider. The second year, you’re the new guy,” says Arturo. “The third year, people come from all over.”
Even though Waterhouse is still getting its sea legs, it’s doing a fine job hiding it.
Waterhouse Oyster Bar
1208 Main Street, Branford (map)
Tues-Thurs 5-8:30pm, Fri-Sat 5-9pm
Calling ahead is highly recommended.
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.