Dining review

Splendid seafood at Sailor Oyster Bar in Annapolis

For The Baltimore Sun

Sailor Oyster Bar in Annapolis proudly advertises that it needs only a toaster and a blowtorch to make its food. In fact, there's no kitchen at this terrific tavern that is packing in patrons.

Owner Scott Herbst, who is also involved in the popular Tsunami restaurant in the state capital, had been thinking about this concept for a couple of years, he said. A visit to Maiden Lane cafe in New York, which specializes in serving tins of preserved fish, spurred his efforts.

Herbst opened Sailor last August with a menu of fresh oysters, gourmet tinned fish from Portugal, deluxe toasts, other snacks and one of the best charcuterie and cheese boards I've ever had. Everything is prepared behind the bar, where the oysters are also shucked.

"It's theater," Herbst said. "People like to see it being made."

If you can't get a seat at the bar, there is a tiny area in the back with seating for eight, a couple of prized tables by the front windows and a second floor with a communal table and other seating in a sun-drenched room.

The decor is minimal, with vintage black-and-white photos of work boats and oyster cans. Servers, in the spirit of the restaurant's name, wear striped shirts and gray pullover caps.

The large oyster selection changes, but on our visit we slurped delicious Holy Grails from the Chesapeake Bay, Spindrifts from Massachusetts and Goose Points from Washington state. The staff takes the time to explain the salinity, size and features of each plump, juicy bivalve served with cocktail and hot sauces.

The hand-packed tins of fish in premium olive oil are a treat. Each lid has decorative artwork to introduce the preserved seafood inside. We decided to try the sardines. (Mackerel, spiced calamari and octopus are also on the menu.)

The dish is served on a wooden board with tender greens, slices of artisanal bread and soft salted butter. To prepare the snack, you butter the bread, add the chunky fish and scatter the lettuce on top.

For the first time while on a review, my usually adventurous husband looked at his plate and said, "I'm a little afraid."

One bite was all it took to conquer his fears. Soon, we were both savoring the plump sardine feast with bliss. We can't wait to go back and try the others.

Numerous drink options go along with the food, including craft cocktails — like the skull puncher with rum — beers and wines, including several bubblies.

Besides the munchie menu items, there are two sandwiches: a Bloney Sandwich with mortadella and aged Gouda, and a Merchant Marine with Italian meats and manchego cheese.

The cheese board with charcuterie was a delectable, filling nosh. The carefully arranged spread was impressive, with items like Moody Blue cheese, avocado cream, chanterelle mushrooms, Old Bay peanuts, apple sticks, Genoa salami, olives, soppressata, Drunken Goat cheese, pesto and hearty bread slices.

We also enjoyed the funghi toast swiped with whipped goat cheese, chives, mushrooms and a shower of pecorino cheese. Other toast toppings include fig and prosciutto, avocado and octopus.

To finish on a sweet note, we indulged in three exquisite chocolate-peanut butter truffles liberally sprinkled with crunchy sea salt. A wedge of melt-in-your-mouth, nine-layer Smith Island cake was another irresistible ending.

Sailor Oyster Bar is a great place to hang out and enjoy the restaurant's signature menu offerings. It suits the nautical scene in Annapolis.

"With the history and Naval Academy and the water, we thought the city could use a perfect oyster bar," Herbst said.

And it doesn't even need a kitchen.

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Sailor Oyster Bar

Rating: 3 1/2 stars

Where: 196 West St., Annapolis

Contact: 410-571-5449, sailoroysterbar.com

Open: 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday

Prices: Oysters, $2-$3; snacks, $5-$21; tinned fish, $12-$20

Food: Seafood

Noise/TVs: At busy times, the place is bustling with energy and friendliness; on a recent afternoon, blues was playing on the sound system; no TVs

Service: Our waiter was excellent and enthusiastically described the menu

Parking: Street parking

Special diets: Can accommodate

Reservation policy: Reservations are not accepted, but if parties of five or more call ahead, the restaurant will try to accommodate them

[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]

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