Oysters shine at Hugo's

A man wearing shorts walks into a bar. He recalls his beach vacations wistfully and yearns to relive them over the lunch hour with a cold beer and hefty platters of gulf oysters and peel-and-eat shrimp. The man pulls open the door and sees a sea of white-clothed tables. He glances down at his attire and quickly retreats, his oyster bar visions dashed. True story.

A group of women valet park their cars and walk into a seafood restaurant. They look forward to a ladies night of conversation over cocktails and Blue Point oysters. They immediately spy the oversized flickering TVs, neon sign and digital jukebox, and wonder whether this was the best choice for a nice meal away from the kids. Also true.

Two stories, one restaurant. What the folks in these stories didn’t know is that both experiences are possible at Hugo’s Oyster Bar in Roswell. This sister to Vinings’ C&S Seafood & Oyster Bar opened in early June on a stretch of Alpharetta Street in desperate need of revitalization. Originally developed to be a New Orleans-themed restaurant, Hugo’s has broadened its concept to showcase what it calls “the bounty of the South, from the Delta to the Banks.”

The two experiences above highlight the dichotomy that is Hugo’s: casual oyster bar or upscale-ish seafood restaurant? The question is how successfully the two concepts can be integrated under one roof. Does the guy who wants to hang at the bar and scarf Gulf oysters by the dozen want a valet to park his car? Do the ladies want to watch big-screen TVs while paying $24 for entrees?

Chef Jonathan Schwenk, who is co-owner with Rich Clark, said they weren’t trying to make Hugo’s into the Optimist, Miller Union or Empire State South. “We aren’t trying to be fancy.”

If Hugo’s stuck to that vision, it would do just fine. The restaurant succeeds as an oyster bar with a mixture of Gulf and boutique oysters, making it a destination. The waters are muddied by attempts to simultaneously go upscale — with untrained waiters and comparatively pricey entrees that don’t always justify the price.

As we move into oyster season, Hugo’s will really shine.You can get your dozen Gulf oysters ($13.75) beach shack-style or make it a combo with a half-pound of peel-and-eat shrimp ($23.50). You’ll also have the opportunity to taste a variety of boutique oysters … hopefully.

On my first visits, Hugo’s offered East Coast varieties, including Wiannos from Massachusetts ($2.75), Sheepscots from Maine ($2.75) and Blue Points ($2.50). On a subsequent visit, when we inquired about the oyster selection we were told that Hugo’s would no longer sell boutique oysters, which didn’t sell as well as the cheaper ones from the Gulf.

Schwenk said the experiment of eliminating boutique oysters was short-lived, due to a loss of customers. The oysters have returned to the menu, but with a smaller daily selection. Good plan. As fall and winter unfold, I’d bet oyster sales will rise. And at Hugo’s the oysters are where it’s at.

Even if you like your oysters cooked, you have options. The signature chargrilled oysters ($9.95 for six) top my list. Infused with grill flavor, they come on the half shell, glistening with butter and topped with blackening spice and parmesan. Even with the butter sauce, the chargrilled oysters are lighter than the creamy alfredo-esque oysters Rockefeller ($9.95 for six) or the greasy pizza-style Hugo’s oysters ($10 for six), gooey with melted cheddar, bacon crumbles and a thin jalapeno disc.

The latter two qualify as comfort food and call for a beer. Choices range from Abita Amber ($5 draft) to Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA ($6 bottle).

You would do well to stick to beer. The well-written list of classic cocktails includes the date of origin, location and creator of each. Yet, the cocktails themselves seem to be less informed, watery and not always made with a sure hand.

Hugo’s also offers a selection of house wines by the carafe and quite a few by the glass, if you’re there to eat on the white-linened side of the dividing line. There are a few steaks ($21-$30) for seafood-averse dining partners, but most entrees feature a variety of fish preparations.

Best bets include the blackened Gulf Mahi ($21), inspired by a dish Schwenk learned while working with Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin. The fish comes with what’s called tropical fried rice, but it’s less fried than softened with apples, bananas, mango, ginger and cilantro. The green apple curry pulls the heat from the Mahi and ties it with the fruity scent of the rice.

Other dishes fall a little flat, like the grilled redfish ($21) on the half shell — aka floppy skin. Served with a thick block of under-seasoned fried macaroni and cheese, the dish is heavy and bland.

On my next trip to Hugo’s I’ll stick with oysters and maybe add a cup of the rich but balanced gumbo ($5.75), packed with shredded chicken and sliced andouille, which would warm me on a winter day. I might also add an order of the spicy blue crab fingers ($12.95), luxuriating in a buttery sherry sauce.

Schwenk said Hugo’s is still evolving, and that they are receptive to customer feedback. I’d vote for keeping a large oyster selection, the thing that makes Hugo’s unique. Join me in voting. We’ll do so with our wallets.

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