Open since 1913, the Grand Central Oyster Bar is one of New York City's most storied dining rooms. While the restaurant is widely known for its raw bar staffed by expert shuckers, there's a dish that's been on the menu since day one that has become one of New York City's most iconic dishes, the oyster pan roast. Essentially a creamy stew, the pan roast is a seemingly simple dish that's been on the menu since the restaurant opened 100 years ago. Its centerpiece: six perfectly cooked Blue Point oysters.
Executive chef Sandy Ingber says that while there's not a record of the exact recipe from 1913, as far as he knows no major changes have been made to the pan roast. "I've been here for 24 years and it hasn't changed," he adds, noting that the traditional preparation is part of the dish's staying power. "It's a one of a kind, we were the only ones doing it for a long time." Ingber estimates that the Oyster Bar sells an impressive 200 pan roasts a day for the simple reason that "it tastes really good."
Eater NY editor Greg Morabito explains that the history of the restaurant is part of the enduring appeal of the famous dish: "The oyster pan roast is, without a doubt, the best dish at Grand Central Oyster Bar. It's a touchstone to old New York, and it's a dish that modern chefs, like April Bloomfield, have drawn inspiration from. It's nice that there's one dish on the menu that matches the decor and sense of history at that restaurant."
Below, the elements of the Grand Central Oyster Bar's oyster pan roast:
1. The Stew
The stew begins with clam juice that has been fortified with clam base. Ingber explains that because of the tremendous volume, the restaurant uses high-end pre-made clam juice and clam base, instead of making them in house. The fortified clam juice is added to the pan with unsalted butter. After that comes to a boil, the oysters are added, and then rest of the stew ingredients: celery salt, Worcestershire sauce, paprika, Heinz chili sauce, and half and half. Ingber explains that each component is a vital contributor to the overall flavor of the dish. Celery salt is the only salt added to the dish, while just a few dashes of Worcestershire balance out the brine of the clam juice and the oysters themselves. Ingber says the tomato-based chili sauce — also a key component of the cocktail sauce at the Oyster Bar — adds a tangy kick without being overly spicy. It also adds body and a pinkish tint to the stew, with paprika rounding out the flavors. Ingber uses half and half to add a rich, silky texture to the stew, finding cream on its own to be too heavy.
2. The Oysters
The star ingredients of the stew are six shucked Blue Point oysters. Ingber explains that Blue Points are mild, but with enough brininess to add flavor to the stew. That brine also imparts a necessary saltiness to the stew. While Blue Points work well from a flavor perspective, Ingber explains that there's more to the decision than just taste. He explains that since the Grand Central Oyster Bar is such a New York City icon, many diners are tourists looking for a full-blown "New York City experience." He explains that Blue Point oysters have the most name recognition of any of the East Coast oysters and are the restaurant's best-selling oyster some five times over. With that in mind, including Blue Points in the pan roast is another way to keep it quintessentially New York, as the oysters hail from the Long Island Sound.
3. The Assembly
One of the signature components of the dish is the stainless steel steam-jacketed kettle in which it is prepared. This pan is similar to a double boiler, with steam being released in between an outer steel wall and an inner steel wall that hold the contents of the pan. Ingber explains that the high heat steam accelerates the cooking process, which is critical because both the dairy and the oysters in the stew can overcook easily.
Ingber estimates that from start to finish, cooking the pan roast takes only three minutes or so. The entire dish is assembled and cooked in the pan, beginning with the fortified clam juice and butter. When that comes to a boil, the raw oysters are added. When the oysters are about half-way done, the paprika, celery salt, and Worcestershire sauce are added. The pan is turned, and then the chili sauce goes in. Shortly before the oysters are completely cooked the half and half is added. In the meanwhile, a soup bowl is prepped with a piece of white toast that's been cut into triangles. The finished oysters are removed from the stew and placed directly on top of the toast. Ingber explains that after the half and half is added, the stew must not be allowed to boil again or else the half and half will break. To prevent that from happening, the stew is poured directly over the oysters and toast just as it is about to reach a boil. The last step is to finish the soup with a bit of paprika and serve it with Westminster Oyster Crackers.