I had anxiety, though, knowing that the interior had been gutted. And when so many have gone under, can any fish house in today's economy keep the quality high?
Let's begin with the essentials - the oysters. Happily, there is a "buck-a-shuck" oyster special ($1 each) weekdays from 5-7 p.m. They pick the oyster variety from what's available in the daily offerings. You sit at the bar and slurp.
If you really want to treat yourself, get some advice from the waiters and sample a variety from the menu.
My tasters and I enjoyed Royal Miyagi ($2.50) from Canada that had a very mild flavor with a slight cucumber finish. Another favorite was the Island Creek ($2.50) from Massachusetts with a sweet taste and hint of brine. Not for the faint of heart, Connecticut's Mystic ($2.10) with a very strong aftertaste.
If raw doesn't do it for you, there is a variety of roasted oysters ($12 for 4 or $23 for 8) or clams casino ($9 for 4 or $17 for 8). Oyster choices range from the traditional Rockefeller to an American regional-inspired corn, squash and barbecue sauce.
I wanted to order a sampler of four different kinds and was told that there were a lot of like-minded souls, but the kitchen found it too daunting.
The kitchen needs to figure this out. On one solo visit, I tried the Rockefeller . . . delicious, but four is too much of the same.
One of the heartening signs is the attention to the quality of the seafood and fish. The salmon is wild, not farm-raised. So, it won't be available regularly, but whatever replaces it on the menu will generally be coming from day boats and have the same attention to freshness and quality.
In addition to the raw bar, there's a nice selection of small plates perfect for sharing.
We couldn't resist adding on an order of Sauteed Mussels ($13).
These plump Prince Edward Island mussels were tossed with a spicy house-made chorizo and chunks of fresh jalapeno swimming in their own garlicky broth.
Mink said that he and his chef, Greg Ling, change up the ingredients in the mussels to keep things from getting boring.
I was happy to see Fried Oysters with Chicken Salad ($12) on the menu. While it seems like an improbable combination, it is a dish with deep roots in Philadelphia history.
Hard to believe, but there was a time when oysters were cheap and plentiful and chicken was an expensive commodity (I guess no one said, "An oyster in every pot"). But, the custom was to put some fried oysters around a mound of chicken salad to fill the plate and make it look as if there was more chicken salad.
Longtime regulars also will be happy to see some of the standards, such as the Clam Chowder and Snapper Turtle Soup.
So, if you are one of those people in a fish house that say, "where's the beef?" the Oyster House Burger ($14) will allow you to get your carnivore on and it comes with a mound, haystack really, of shoestring fries.
Dry aged prime beef is cooked as specified, served on a toasted brioche roll with caramelized onions and blue cheese, and topped with a fried oyster.
I think the concept is brilliant. However, one small change would improve it. The blue cheese overwhelmed the oyster; I'd rather see a garlic aioli that would enhance the burger and the oyster.
We also sampled the Maryland Crab Cakes ($26). Two jumbo lump cakes with the smallest amount of binder and a dusting of breading served with remoulade, fingerling potatoes and green beans. The beauty was in the simplicity.
If there was a dish that sealed the deal, it was the Wild Sockeye Salmon ($26) served with a blueberry sauce and a frisee salad studded with ultra-smoky bacon.
A minor quibble, the vinaigrette was a little too vinegary for anyone drinking wine, but overall, the dish had a nice balance with the rich flesh of the fish, sweetness of fruit, smoky bacon and bitter frisee.
The surprise was how wonderful the desserts were. No sweets-lover should go without the Brownie Sundae ($6). Plump roasted hazelnuts were bathed in a caramel sauce and dressed a warm brownie covered in ice cream. Very, very addictive.
The Rhubarb Cobbler ($7) was as down-home-by-the-shore as one could get. Tangy fruit was accented by the sweet crumbly topping and served warm with a mound of ice cream.
The wine list is a huge improvement from the former. The quality and selection has improved, but the mark-up is very reasonable. And the list includes classics such as the 2007 Jovly Chenin Blanc ($7 glass, $30 bottle) to a more esoteric 2006 Tomaresca Neprica ($33).
The bar list sports some nice domestics on draft, such as Yards' Brawler ($5) and Sly Fox Brewing Company's O'Reilly's Stout ($5). Belgium lovers will find the Ommegang Abbey Ale 25-ounce bottle ($12).
My original trepidation has been allayed by several good meals with respectable service.
I'm getting used to the renovation, although I'd prefer the character of local Mercer Tile over the stark-white subway tile.
It seems we went from grandma's dark front room to ultra-sleek New York modernity.
The openness and showcase of family collection of oyster plates are some nice features, though.
Also, the use of reclaimed materials such as the bar's marble, which was once part of Independence Mall, and the flooring, fashioned from timber from the Academy of Music, adds some history as well as warmth.
Welcome back, Oyster House. *