T here’s something elemental about eating oysters by the sea, as if you plucked your dinner from the brine.  At Shell & Bones, a slick oyster bar and grill on Water Street, you’re not exactly roughing it, but the food and atmosphere combine to give a sense of freshness and summery ease.

I visited on a weekday afternoon to find all the windows thrown open and the sleek, circular bar already full. I sat outside on the deck, with a view of East Shore and Lighthouse Point Park across the Sound. Seagulls drafted overhead, sun sparkled on the water and a schooner named Plethora bobbed a few yards away.

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Even before the food arrived, the restaurant impressed with its elegance and openness. In the ’70s, the space was the site of buttoned-up eatery Chart House, and several restaurants have been in and out since then. There are even rumors that the location is haunted by a relatively benign ghost who rearranges furniture and occasionally whispers. Shell & Bones’s atmosphere, however, seems to have exorcised any spirits of restaurants past. Hip without being precious, the space is now decorated with plate glass and raw light bulbs. A loping Bob Dylan tune played over the sound system.

I began by sampling all four oysters (market price) on the menu, which came in a steel boat, sailing on crushed ice with buoys of spicy marinara sauce, shallot-rich mignonette and lemon wedges. My shellfish tour crossed from East to West and back, beginning with a briney, meaty offering from Duxbury, Massachusetts, a lighter, almost floral bite from Hood Canal, Washington, a petite and sweet Cooke’s Cocktail from Hubbard Island and, my favorite of the bunch, a plump local Blue Point oyster.

Next, I moved on to an inventive Burrata Salad ($14) composed of pale yellow heirloom tomatoes stacked above pink watermelon slices and crowned with a pouch of fresh mozzarella and cream. It was summer on a plate, colorful and crisp. The burrata was buttery and a handful of mustardy watercress added spice. The tart tomatoes and sweet watermelon complemented each other’s texture, making me wonder why the two hot-weather staples don’t meet more often.

For the main course, I tried the Salmon ($29), which was served atop a pile of warm, creamy grits and sauteed wild mushrooms. The fish was well cooked, crisp on the outside, tender and flaky on the inside. The mushrooms were rich and earthy, and the whole plate was drizzled with a burgundy sauce. While most of the individual components were all handled beautifully, the dish lacked coherence, and the addition of mixed vegetables—kernels of corn and asparagus stems—added color but not much else.

Though I didn’t sample anything off it, the cocktail list seems to be where Shell & Bones takes the most risks, with drinks like Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots ($16), a reference to The Flaming Lips that adds lychee and orchid to a stern mix of vodka, sake and gin.

As I finished my meal, the afternoon was cooling towards evening. The lights were on, the music played a little louder, the bar bustled and, outside, the parking lot was full to bursting. A shucking station, given pride of place next to the hostess stand, was full of horned shells, still closed and dark from the water. I watched as two oyster shuckers, armed with the small, sharp knives of their trade, opened shell after shell with practiced movements, preparing for the evening rush.

Shell & Bones Oyster Bar & Grill
100 S Water St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Tues 4-10pm, Wed-Sun 11am-10pm
(203) 787-3466

Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.

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Sorrel is a California transplant to New Haven. She studied English at Harvard and fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She spends her free time among her house rabbits and houseplants, looking at maps of Death Valley. She loves New England for its red brick and rainstorms and will travel great distances in pursuit of lighthouses and loud music.

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