Concept Restaurants

Blue Island Oyster Bar Welcomes New Exec Chef, Launches Fall Oyster Specials

Blue Island Oyster Bar opened in Cherry Creek just over a year ago, bringing East Coast-style seafood and raw-bar delights to the corner of East Second Avenue and Columbine Street. Concept Restaurants veteran chef DJ Nagle (creator of the signature bacon burger at Humboldt) has been at the helm for the past year, but he's moving on to oversee another one of the company's projects, the trio of Sprucethe Corner Bar and License No. 1 inside the Hotel Boulderado. So last week, Joe Troupe signed on as the new executive chef, which means he gets to oversee more than a month of oyster events coming to Blue Island.

 

Troupe's first Colorado exec position was at Lucky Pie (both the Louisville original and the newer downtown Denver pizzeria), and he was also chef/owner at Amass, which closed in August after a two-year run at a tough Jefferson Park address. The new Blue Island gig marks a return to Cherry Creek for Troupe, who also worked across the street at North Italia prior to going to Lucky Pie and Amass.

The chef and his team are offering several specials this fall to take advantage of the height of oyster season. Now through October 10, oysters Rockefeller are available as a threesome for $9 or a set of five for $15. Then from October 11 through October 20, $12 will land you a bowl of Joe’s Oyster Stew, named for the chef and also available in a small serving for $7. And from October 21 through October 30, the oyster bar will offer a Big Five tasting plate at market price, presenting one each of five edible species of oyster that the restaurant says can only be showcased at this time of year, when all five species are at their peak.

For the next two months, a $2 oyster of the day will also be shucked, and for $30 guests can get a dozen bivalves matched with a bottle of Evolution sparkling wine. And on November 3, Troupe will host his first chef dinner — The Chef, the Shucker, the Farmer & the Brewer — which will bring in land, sea and suds specialists along with beers from Boulder Beer Company. Check the Blue Island website for details and reservations.

by Mark Antonation

First Bite: Blue Island Oyster Bar Brings Dock-to-Table Concept to Cherry Creek

 Trenton Reed

What: an accessible seafood and raw bar concept that balances New England oyster shack tradition with modern Cherry Creek sophistication.

Where: 2625 E. Second Ave., Denver

Neighborhood: Cherry Creek

When: Opens September 22. Regular hours: Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.–11 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11– 12 a.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Note: Kitchen closes at 10 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends. 

Opening a "dock-to-dish" concept in landlocked Denver may raise some eyebrows. Despite endless discussions over the sourcing of seafood and an ongoing raw bar trend, diners still seem preoccupied over the Mile High City's sea-less status. To combat this, Blue Island Oyster Bar—the latest from Concept Restaurants, whose recent endeavors include Humboldt Farm, Fish and Wine—takes its fresh seafood ethos seriously.

Not only does Blue Island fly in seafood daily, and source many of its oysters from Long Island's Great South Bay, the Cherry Creek concept has teamed directly with Chris Quartuccio, founder, and CEO of Blue Island Oyster Company to cut out the middleman. When asked about logistics, Quartuccio details a remarkable half-day journey, starting at 5 a.m. in the Great South Bay with a fresh shucker's basket full of oysters, and ending on the restaurant's bar, in a similar basket, in time for dinner.

What does this mean for Denver diners? The real deal when it comes to wild-harvested, diver-foraged oysters. 

THE CONCEPT

Blue Island has deep east coast roots and is heavily influenced by the food and culture of New England and New York. In addition to Quartuccio's Long Island connection, Sean Huggard, Director of Operations, grew up south of Boston and cooked in Nantucket, and Executive Chef DJ Nagle—formerly of Humboldt—was raised, and got his professional start, in New York.

What started as a mutual love of oysters, blossomed into a restaurant. The idea began when Huggard met Quartuccio through a mutual friend about 18 months ago at the Seafood Expo North America in Boston. Huggard had always wanted to open an oyster bar with a farmer; Quartuccio had always wanted to open an oyster bar with a restaurateur. And while Concept Restaurants has raw bar elements on other menus, Huggard wanted Blue Island to be perfect. Having Quartuccio on board was the missing link:

"It was important if we were going to serve raw, living animals to people that we really understood what went into it. We wanted to know where [the oysters] were coming from and that we could control the source and serve the best. Not just the best in the city, but the best in the country," Huggard explained.

While Cherry Creek was not Concept's first choice, the team is excited to open its doors in the recently revitalized area. "I think we need to attract a certain demographic that understands and finds value in fresh seafood," says Huggard. "Cherry Creek just works."

THE SPACE

The Diners are greeted by Blue Island's opulent oyster shell entrance. Gray woods and muted blues envelop the expansive 100-seat space. The focus is the lavish raw bar and bordering open kitchen. While the restaurant features an installation above the bar that resembles oars and chairs that are seemingly constructed with driftwood, the coastal influences are lighthearted and refined. Blue Island is equal parts beachside oyster shack and Cherry Creek elegance.

What truly sets Blue Oyster a part from other seafood joints, however, are its subtle reminders of the origins of its sister farm. A detailed, full-wall rendering of the Great South Bay lines the western wall. Photographs of Quartuccio and his team of divers—including a shot of Dave Gum, a guy who Quartuccio tells me was one of the first divers on Long Island—are dispersed throughout the space. And the oysters are displayed directly on the bar in traditional shucker's baskets.

THE FOOD

When asked about childhood tastes, Huggard and Nagle are quick to tell nostalgic stories of neighborhood bars serving fresh-caught baked cod and boardwalk clam shacks cooking up family recipes. A shared memory? "That smell," said Huggard without hesitation, referring to the aromas wafting from Blue Island's open kitchen. "Especially when the clams hit the frying oil."

Capturing this essence is a common theme throughout the menu. While offerings such as the crab cakes and fried oysters stay true to their New England roots—and the menu does include non-seafood fare such as steak and burgers—Nagle's menu is accented by creative interpretations of classics. The shareable Stuffies ($6), a savory Cape Cod baked clam classic, benefit from the addition of scallops, charred corn, and Linguiça sausage. The Fish & Chips ($16) utilize a crunchy cracker crust, and are noticeably lighter than traditional beer-battered versions. And the rotating Chef & Shucker ($49), designed to be shared amongst a table, revitalizes the oft-uninspired seafood tower with eccentric raw bar offerings—the current version features salmon rillette and tuna poke—and chef-inspired charcuterie. Deserts such as Key Lime Pie ($8) and the delectable Chocolate Cake ($10) are unfussy, and are meant to supplement the seafood.

The beverage program, headed by Humboldt's Alex Curry, again emphasizes simplicity. In addition to familiar offerings such as mules and a Dark & Stormy, Blue Island offers colloquial favorites such as the Cap Code and a Daiquiri ($10)—all of which will run for $5 during happy hour. The Diver's Punch ($9), a bold concoction of gin, tequila, muddled fruit and fresh lime, is a party in a glass, but is surprisingly more subtle than sweet. And with its dry cured olive garnish, the salty, aggressive signature martini is your best bet with oysters. Finally, a balanced, focused wine list—featuring an "Interesting Whites" section—and two Boulder Beer offerings, brewed specifically for Blue Island, round out the focused program.

Unsurprisingly, however, oysters are the main show at Blue Island—and Blue Island Oyster Company's farmed and wild-caught options are the backbone of the menu. The signature Blue Island No. 9—a farmed Virginica variety that balances strong salinity with a smooth, buttery finish—will be a staple, and is also featured on the happy hour menu for $2. Naked Cowboys, a wild oyster diver-harvested in the Great South Bay, are noticeably briny and meaty. And while upfront east coast varieties are the star, the menu features a rotating selection of high-quality specimens (priced daily) from around the world for those that prefer smooth, buttery oysters. 

With an approachable menu that aims to highlight a variety of oysters—some of which are farmed or wild-caught in Long Island's Great South Bay by Quartuccio's team—and New England comfort food classics, Blue Island Oyster Bar is an appropriate homage to the generations of divers and dockhands who have long foraged for the perfect oyster. Despite being 2,000 miles from the nearest harbor.

All photography by Danielle Webster.

Surf's Up at Blue Island Oyster Bar Tomorrow

BY MARK ANTONATION

Oyster bars and raw oyster service have become trendy in Denver restaurants, but Blue Island Oyster Bar, which opens tomorrow in Cherry Creek North, is taking shellfish obsession to a new level. The new seafood house next door to the Cherry Cricket is partnering with the Blue Island Shellfish Farm on Long Island, New York, and will offer several proprietary oyster varieties that the company will ship to Denver daily, with mollusks often pulled from Altantic coast waters in the morning that are ready to be shucked for dinner service.

Blue Island Shellfish Farm owner Chris Quartuccio partnered with Denver's Concept Restaurants (owners of HumboldtStout Street Social and Ignite Burgers & Lounge, among others) because he was looking for an experienced restaurant management team in a new market for his oysters and clams. At Concept, he found like-minded East Coasters in director of operations Sean Huggard and chef DJ Nagle. He'll provide farmed and wild-caught oysters for the group while Nagle will oversee the kitchen and menu of classic New York and New England fare.

Some of the oysters, like kumamotos, will have names familiar to shellfish aficionados, while others  — shibumi, Blue Island No. 9 and Naked Cowboy — are new to the Denver market and will be exclusive to the restaurant. The Naked Cowboy variety was actually named for the famed Manhattan street musician, and comes with its own branded hot sauce that was developed specifically to complement the flavors of the oyster.

Oyster buyer and head shucker Cory Egan will manage the prominent raw bar; oysters will be displayed on ice in steel diver baskets set on the bar counter. A Chef & Shucker tower will combine shrimp, clams and oysters served on ice topped with a wooden board of salmon rillette, tuna poke, sausage, artisan cheese and grilled ciabatta. A la carte raw bar offerings will cover caviar, ceviche, crudo and lobster.

Nagle's menu features seafood-shack favorites: clam chowder served with clam cakes; fish and chips made with cracker-crusted cod; clam "stuffies" overflowing with a breadcrumb, corn and linguica sausage mixture; and fried clam strips. "It's just stuff that I like to cook," the Long Island native explains. As a kid, Nagle says, he used to fish off the pier in Sayville, New York that now serves as the headquarters of Quartuccio's seafood company.

Modern dishes include tuna poke, black cod skewers served over Asian noodles with miso sabayon, and charred octopus with chorizo vinaigrette. 

The decor captures the feel of a New England seafood house with updated Cherry Creek influences. Weathered chairs and bar stools contrast with a sleek and clean-lined oyster bar while dim, architectural light fixtures shed a rippling, underwater glow against mural-sized maps and photos. 

The bar program will include seven house cocktails; Diver's IPA and Blue Island Blonde on tap (both made for the eatery by Boulder Beer); and an in-depth wine list that should please the Cherry Creek crowd. Happy hour will be offered from 3 to 6 p.m. daily.

Blue Island Oyster Bar opens at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, September 22, and will be open seven days a week. Closing hours are flexible for now until Blue Island settles into the flow of the neighborhood. Keep reading for a look at Cherry Creek's latest catch.