The Shop from Island Creek Oysters
Oysters, caviar, and rosé on a sunny Wednesday afternoon—nothing has felt this indulgent in a long time. I’m happy to report that this marvelous experience was affordable (well, the caviar is a bit of a splurge) and available to anyone who happens to find herself or himself near the Shop from Island Creek Oysters on Washington Avenue in Portland’s East End. Part retail shop, part raw bar, and part seafood wholesaler, the Shop offers fresh oysters from Maine and the surrounding region. Buy them to take home, or if you’re ready to partake immediately, order a platter to enjoy in the warehouse-style space. If the weather permits and the garage doors are up, take your plate outside to the wide, front patio.
Skip Bennett founded Island Creek in Duxbury, Massachusetts, in the early 1990s, as a consortium of 11 independent oyster growers. It was strictly a farm and wholesale operation until 2010, when he collaborated with chef Jeremy Sewall and restaurateur Garrett Harker to open the first of several restaurants in Boston. “All the things we do that are not farming are about diversification and new revenue streams,” Island Creek president Chris Sherman tells me. Island Creek now works with over 600 chefs all over the country, including some of the most prestigious, such as Thomas Keller of the French Laundry. There are two Island Creek Oyster Bars and two other restaurants in Massachusetts and one restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The oysters go directly from farm to the chefs or Island Creek’s own retail outlets. “No middleman lets us keep prices low here in Portland,” Sherman says.
Sherman is headquartered in Massachusetts, but has previously lived in Maine and loves spending time here. “We’ve been sniffing around this street for at least two years,” he says. “We love this neighborhood. It’s diverse, fun, and walkable.” The building is the former home of Creighton and Sons Wholesale Florist, and the space maintains the industrial feel. It’s furnished simply but comfortably, with both eBay finds and local items. There’s a neon horseshoe crab created by “Neon” Dave Johansen of Portland on one wall near two custom-made, chartreuse-colored sofas. A big communal table was made right in the neighborhood by Weather Furniture and carried over to the Shop. It’s surrounded by vintage chairs that bring back memories of elementary school. The raw bar is the centerpiece of the place—a long counter displaying a variety of oysters on ice. A chalkboard above proclaims: “$1.50 Oysters, All Day, Eat Here, or Take Home and Shuck Yourself, Everybody Wins.” Both Maine and Island Creek oysters are offered, served up on metal trays with ice and a lemon wedge, along with a squeeze bottle of mignonette. “We noticed Maine was a sleeper oyster producing behemoth,” Sherman says. “There are 150 startup oyster farms in Maine, but they’re lacking national distribution. This facility gives us better access to them. We’re working with eight or nine established Maine farms to help them expand their business, which has been mostly seasonal.” We taste Row 34, Beach Point, and Puffer oysters from Massachusetts and Mookie Blues, Winnegance, and Norumbega oysters from Maine. Each has a slightly different flavor profile; the ones from Island Creek are complex and buttery, and the Damariscotta oysters are briny and full-bodied.
Oysters are the heart of the Shop, but conservas, or tinned fish, is also available for taking home or eating in. The Shop will set up a beautiful platter to enjoy high-quality tinned sardines, octopus, and mussels, all from Spain. “We wanted to offer something else but keep it streamlined,” says general manager Kit Paschal. “It’s a great way to snack.” I love the olive oil-packed sardines, piled on toasted Standard Baking Co. bread with butter, mustard, and pickled red cabbage. “It’s a nod to Maine’s canning heritage,” Sherman says. “We’d love to reintroduce that. And it’s a great lunch option. We sell way more tinned fish than we anticipated.” White sturgeon caviar is presented elegantly in an antique caviar server with crème fraiche, chives, and tiny, buttery crumpets. “This is more about the caviar than the accoutrements,” says Sherman. “It’s from the first company in the world to farm caviar.”
Paschal has put together a concise but interesting wine and beer menu, completely available on tap. “It works nicely with the counter service aspect,” he says. “We like the freshness, and it’s easy to pour a taste.” In choosing what to offer, he had one criteria: it has to go well with raw seafood. That usually means a crisp, dry wine like grüner veltliner or something bubbly, like prosecco. Beers are all local, including Fore River Brewing Company’s John Henry nitro milk stout. “There’s no mealtime here,” Paschal says. ”People drift in all afternoon and then into the evening for a glass of wine or oysters any time.”
“We make it easy to pop in on a Saturday afternoon with the kids. We’ve stripped everything away but the essentials,” Sherman says. “I think this is the future of how we dine out. Portland is a great place to do this.”
The Shop Raw Bar and Shellfish Market | Island Creek Oysters | 123 Washington Ave. | Portland | 207. 699.4466