We were on a family vacation to Daytona Beach the first time an oyster graced my presence. I was about 10 years old and, needless to say, disgusted. Fast forward twenty+ years, and here I am writing about Sea Level, a delicious new oyster bar in Uptown Charlotte. What is it about oysters that entice people? For me, it’s the contrast of the fresh garnishes with the cool, salty meat. Horseradish, cocktail sauce, and Tobasco. A squirt of lemon. A saltine. A traditional French Mignonette (my pick). Sure, oyster purists like them plain, but I prefer to approach oysters as if they’re the nachos of the sea. Who’s with me?
Sea Level is located uptown at the bottom of the Hearst Tower (entrance off of 5th street) and is co-owned by the same folks who brought us Crepe Cellar and Growlers Pourhouse in NoDa plus Paul Manley, who helped open Pearlz Oyster Bar in Charleston, SC. I’ve eaten at Sea Level three times (so far), including an informative and delicious evening of oysters and drink pairings with my CLT Food Blogger friends. While the farm-to-fork and sustainable foods concepts are becoming well represented in Charlotte, Sea Level is applying these food sourcing missions to seafood by shortening the food chain between oyster farmers and restaurants and by only purchasing non-threatened species. Sea-to-fork, if you will, which doesn’t have quite as nice of a ring to it. . . So, since we’re talking oysters, how about sea-to-slurp? (HOT NEW PHRASE ALERT.)
If you’re lucky enough to visit Sea Level on a night when Paul is in, I’m certain you too will be awed by his extensive knowledge of both oysters and the oyster farming business. I think it’s fair to say that everything I know about oysters, I learned from Paul. Did you know there are several different species of oysters, some of which are only grown on the west coast? I did not. Since the flavor profile of an oyster is largely attributable to it’s geographic origin and species varietal, Sea Level makes sure to offer a variety on their menu.
If you’ve never tried it, I recommend ordering half a dozen different oysters and sampling from least to most salty. Speaking of sampling, Sea Level also offers oyster pairings with your choice of whisky, scotch, or tequila. Plus oyster shooters, if that strikes your fancy. A few of my favorite oysters at Sea Level are the buttery Duxbury, Canadian Beausoleil, and of course, the medium-brine Sea Level from North Carolina.
There’s lots on the menu at Sea Level besides oysters. The lunch menu features petite tacos, oyster sliders, shrimp and pork belly steam buns, both clam chowder and oyster stew, light salads, and sandwiches. So far, their top lunch seller is the lobster roll, but they also offer a seafood sausage sandwich, shrimp po’ boy, and delightful catfish Reuben. I hope to try their sweet potato, mushroom, and farro veggie burger very soon.
The dinner menu includes the lunch offerings, plus much more: mussels, squid chow chow, a variety of fish (bass, catfish, trout, and salmon currently), and meat (burger, filet, and chicken breast) entrees. They hope to offer brunch soon.
Based on my visits so far, I’d say the catfish Reuben is a sure-fire bet for lunch. I also enjoyed sampling the little tacos along with a side salad. The Chinese steam buns and Korean squid chow chow seem a little out of place on the menu–I’m curious where this Asian influence comes from. Regardless, one of my good friends tried the pork steam bun and said it was delightful. If nothing else, head to Sea Level, grab a seat at the bar, and order a big ole tray of oysters.