Sea Level Oyster Bar
Photos by Anthony Tieuli
Sea Level Oyster Bar feels like it’s been sitting on Salem Harbor forever. From the artfully rusted sign out front to the custom lighting made from old oyster cans and corrugated tin, everything works together to evoke a casual seaside shanty. The décor is the only thing that’s time-worn, though. The menu is playful and modern, breathing new life into classic New England fare.
Hell’s Kitchen alum Jennifer Normant exhibits impressive culinary finesse, fearlessly putting her own spin on classic seafood. The popcorn shrimp, for instance, is lightly breaded, perfectly cooked, and served spilling out of a paper bag onto newsprint, comingling with actual pieces of popcorn flavored with Old Bay seasoning. It’s the perfect dish to enjoy at the central indoor-outdoor bar with a Cucumber Celery Rita, a nicely balanced mix of grapefruit and tequila, slightly salty with a hint of celery.
Or grab a table on one of the two floors, done in shades of gray and blue, with great water views from every seat. Owner George Carey extensively renovated the former Dry Dock and Captain’s Waterfront Grill, reorienting it toward the water and opening the space up to Salem Harbor, the Friendship of Salem ship, and surrounding national park land. Clear garage doors roll down to keep bad weather at bay. The sound system keeps the party going with a mix of vacation-themed music from the likes of Bob Marley and the Beach Boys, while waitstaff don T-shirts printed with tongue-in-cheek expressions like “Wanna see my mussels?”
Of course, Sea Level Oyster Bar offers an impressive array of freshly shucked oysters (be sure to try the house mignonette sauce, with its southwestern flair from cilantro and mango). Even the baked oysters are shucked fresh—plump and juicy, they are gently topped with cheddar cheese, bacon, and a hit of jalapeño. The PEI mussels are noteworthy, too—sweet and rich with smoked tomatoes and basil, and you’ll want to sop up every drop with the grilled bread. For a spin on the gourmet burger, try the Sea Level topped with fried clams.
While Normant loves to play with the classics, she also knows when to go old school, as in the case of the baked seafood pie. The chef studied the classic New England dish and eventually adapted a recipe from Yankee magazine, packing lobster, shrimp, and scallops topped with a whisper of Ritz cracker crumbs into a dish so delicious you’ll want to eat every last spoonful.
For the waning days of sum- mer, try the Baja fish tacos, which perfectly balance soft and crispy textures—a light touch of breading, nicely dressed with sprigs of cilant- ro, queso fresco, flavorful tomatoes, and a hint of lime.
The creative presentation of dishes is also appreciable—you are unlikely to see a round white plate anywhere, as meals arrive on wooden boards or in metal pans, galvanized steel trays, or paper bags.
Desserts change daily (the menu is actually stamped on the table), but one staple is Normant’s dough- boys, pillowy hand-molded fried ravioli rolled in cinnamon sugar and filled with the chef’s whim— anything from pumpkin or apple to decadent chocolate. Served with a crème anglaise dipping sauce, it’s a delicious and fun way to end your meal. sealeveloysterbar.com