When I think of seafood towers, I think of overly elaborate presentations that will arrive before me with the same pizazz as the excitable cartoon food in Beauty and the Beast's "Be Our Guest." Shrimp and crabs will be practically jumping off the top tier in anticipation, and clams and oysters will be fluttering their shells wildly.
The name implies grandeur and decadence, as well as something a little staid, a little stuffy. Have seafood towers been at all popular since the mid-'90s? I remember seeing a lot of them in Corpus Christi growing up, but I hardly ever find a seafood tower on a menu these days.
Which is why I was both pleased and surprised when I noted the 3rd Bar Plateau, "Reef's grouping of all things salty and raw," on the menu at Reef, Bryan Caswell's Midtown seafood joint. It's not a new addition, but it was new to me, so with an extra eater in tow, I set off to vanquish the mighty tower.
It turns out that Reef's tower is more subdued than most, focusing on quality ingredients instead of an overwhelming quantity. There are two tiers, each filled with ice and dotted with composed seafood dishes. The top tier contains a bowl of seaweed salad surrounded by boiled crab fingers and shrimp in spicy cocktail sauce shooters. Below that is a layer of six giant oysters flanked by various sauces, and two bowls, one with ceviche and one with shrimp in a creamy sauce. Simple but satisfying.
The seaweed salad is basic, but a refreshing change from the briny seafood filling the rest of the tower. It's ever-so-sightly sweet and acidic thanks to a jolt of vinegar, and sesame seeds add a little extra crunch to the already crunchy green.
The seafood is the star, though, and while the boiled crab fingers are fairly basic, the shrimp shooters are not. Each large, pink prawn is draped over the edge of a shot glass filled with spicy Bloody Mary mix. I found myself dipping other items (like the crab fingers) into the cool but piquant liquid, adding a burst of spicy heat to the icy seafood.
A bowl of shrimp tossed in a creamy hot and sweet mayo is accented with chunks of fresh mango, so every few bites there's a bright pop of acid. The mango's sweetness is tempered by the rich sauce, so it's not overwhelmingly sweet or tangy, but mellow like classic shrimp salad.
The most impressive dish in the tower and the one I'd request again and again is the kinilaw, a Filipino variation on ceviche. Tender snapper and crab meat are cured in a coconut lime broth, much like a Peruvian leche de tigre but without the aji spice of Peruvian ceviche. The seafood is mixed with slices of crisp raw radishes and chunks of sweet pear, adding textural elements to what could be a simple dish of seafood and citrus.
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And the most surprising element? Half a dozen large raw oysters. When they came out on the platter, my friend and I looked at each other dubiously. It's not oyster season anymore. Where did these come from, and how good could off-season oysters be? Of course, they looked good. They smelled good. The chef told us they came from Alabama, where people are apparently still hauling in quality bivalves thanks to a late season.
So we downed the first raw oysters we'd had since April, slurping up all the juices and relishing that slimy feeling as they slinked down the back of our throats. The plump oysters were perfect on their own, and even better with a little mignonette or horseradish to bring out every briny nuance. Even though it's no longer the season, those delicious oysters have me craving raw oysters night and day all over again.
The impressive seafood tower at Reef is only $49 and serves two to four people, depending on if you treat it as an appetizer or an entree. Compare that to the $95 seafood tower at Vallone's or the chilled shellfish platter at The Oceanaire (both contain lobster), which is $36 per person, and you've got a steal.
Also worth mentioning: Soft shell crabs are back. And they're HUGE.