Happiness at the Levee

A few years ago, I was in the Tampa Bay area on business, and some colleagues took me to a small restaurant with a name I’ve long since forgotten. But when I arrived to find a sign trumpeting “Oysters on the half shell, 50 cents each,” I was beside myself with glee.

You don’t get deals like that in the heartland, you know? While Louisville has been adding more and more places serving oysters, you’re typically going to be in for $1.50 or $2 a pop, minimum, depending on the type of oyster being served.

The River House, John Varanese’s waterfront seafood concept, is a place with a fantastic raw bar — but it’s also a place where one could drop a lot of dough in a single sitting. What to do?

Well, thankfully, I recently stumbled across the special deals at Levee at the River House, which is the lounge offshoot to the restaurant space. Every Wednesday, its Chesapeake oysters on the half-shell for a buck apiece, along with $5 glasses of house wine.

There also are cool specials on other parts of the small-plates menu at the Levee, which I’ll get to in a moment. First things first: I went recently on a Wednesday, sucked down 14 raw with a glass of a nice house Chardonnay — it wasn’t a skimpy pour, either — and it only set me back $20.

I sat at the bar, and the helpful bartender quickly told me I could order any quantity, from one through infinity (well, or until they were out of oysters). I started with eight, and they come with a handful of saltine crackers, some chipotle cocktail sauce and a lemon wedge. Pretty standard, and you can also get hot sauce and horseradish if you request it.

The oysters were clean, fresh-tasting and bore the typically mild flavor of the plentiful Chesapeake oysters (which were actually in short supply until the last two or three years). They were so tasty, I ordered six more, and did so without worrying about overspending. The oysters were on the small side, admittedly, but let’s face it: if you’re eating raw oysters, you’re in it for the flavor and the experience, not to get full. Also? They were a dollar.

And if oysters aren’t your thing, you’re in luck, as Thursday’s special at the Levee is for $5 flatbreads, with your choice of the four-cheese or the smoked bacon and caramelized onion jam varieties. The bartender assured me the Thursday flatbreads are full-size versions, which are big enough to share, or to eat individually as a small meal. Normally, they’re $10 for the cheese and $12 for the bacon, which represents a pretty darn-good deal for five bucks. In addition, rotating craft beer specials fall on Thursday, as well, so you’ll have something with which to wash down your snacks.

And on Sundays until 8 p.m., it’s $4 sliders and tacos. Typically priced at $10 to $14 per pair, the your-choice-for-four-bucks offer is a pretty tempting deal, as well, and one I’ll be trying very soon. The tacos available are fried fresh-catch fish tacos topped with avocado and mustard seed slaw or braised beef short rib topped with chimichurri and pickled red onions.

As for the sliders, you get to choose from grilled steak with Boursin cheese, caramelized onions and roasted garlic aioli; fried oyster sliders with spicy remoulade and cocktail sauce, and Maker’s 46 Barrel Plank Smoked Salmon, featuring sun-dried tomato-and-goat-cheese spread plus lemon caper aioli. Sounds pretty tasty for $4, eh? I thought so.

In addition, if you hit the Levee — which is actually a cozy place to hang out pretty much anytime, with several couches and plenty of high-tops, as well as a horseshoe-shaped bar — be sure to ask about the random specials that come and go. Recent ones include special menu items like loaded bacon fries, cheeseburger tacos, fried pickles and wings.

“It depends on how the chef feels,” my bartender told me.

Fair enough. All I know is that anytime I can get $1 oysters on the half shell, I’m feeling pretty good myself. The rest is just a bonus.