It's 7 o'clock on a Friday night, and Racks Fish House + Oyster Bar is hopping. Every stool at the bar that winds from inside to outside is taken. It's happy hour, and people are drinking, but they're also partaking in Buck-a-Shuck, when Racks puts Blue Points on sale for $1 a piece.
Hollywood designer Karen Hanlon oversaw the $2.75 million transformation of this former VFW into a smart contemporary room with just enough clever design details to remind you of fish houses of old. The ceiling, for instance, looks to be made of fishing net, but it's a much-more-intricate pattern of ropes, shackles, turnbuckles and eye hooks created by Miami Beach artist Andrew Reid.
Wooden tables are set with paper place mats. Striped banquettes and booths and oversize dinette chairs give diners plenty of comfortable seating choices. That busy bar is a comfortable and coveted perch.
Start dinner with oysters. The night we dined here, the choices were Blue Point, Kumamoto, Beaver Tail, Beau Soleil and Fanny Bay. Priced about $3 each, these oysters were some of the freshest I've had in a long time, served classically with mignonette and cocktail sauces. Judging by the bevy of uniformed shuckers at the raw bar, they take shellfish seriously here. In the busy months after Racks' January opening, the restaurant was selling 10,000 oysters a week — 70 percent of them raw.
Some of them are breaded and fried for the New Englander ($18), a grass-fed burger topped with crispy oysters, cheddar, lettuce, mayonnaise and jalapeno. It's already a house favorite.
Chef Matthew Danaher has created a menu that perfectly balances high and low. Buffalo rock shrimp ($14), for instance, features the freshest crustaceans battered in buttermilk and flour before being fried and tossed with Buffalo sauce, peanuts and blue cheese. Tuna tiradito ($14) is all about freshness. Fresh cubes of fillet are mixed with a bit of sesame oil, sugar, citrus, scallion, avocado and peanut oil.
Surprising even to Danaher is the popularity of his roasted-beet salad ($11). The beets are roasted and then mixed with olive oil, goat cheese and a nut relish made with pistachios, almond, walnuts and pine nuts. Grapes are a surprise ingredient.
Fish tacos ($13) are overstuffed with pan-fried cod and then wrapped with a mixture of avocado aioli, shaved cabbage, lime juice, carrots, cilantro and jalapeno.
The daily fish special can be had grilled or pan-fried. Danaher says it may be trout, swordfish, tripletail, redfish, branzino or tuna. The special is priced between $22 and $34 and served with coleslaw or an interesting quinoa pilaf made with three kinds of quinoa (black, gold and red), wild rice, scallions and herbs.
Shrimp and grits ($24) is another dish soon to become a classic at Racks. Danaher uses green chile, jack cheese and butter in his grits. He brings in andouille from New Orleans and poaches the shrimp in a lobster and shrimp stock, so that each element is infused with flavor.
Danaher gets to show off his classical training with a buttery Idaho trout almondine ($22), served with his riff on solid American succotash made with beans, corn and peas. Pan-seared scallops ($24) are served with lovely tarragon-scented creamed corn.
Over the past seven years, restaurateur Gary Rack has built a solid culinary and hospitality team starting in Boca with Table 42 and Racks Downtown Eatery + Tavern. Each endeavor gets better.
I'm told he has another restaurant on the drawing board. I can't wait.
Racks Fish House + Oyster Bar
5 SE Second Ave., Delray Beach
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily; brunch Saturday-Sunday
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Can be noisy
Outside smoking: No
For kids: Highchairs, boosters, menu items on request
Wheelchair accessible: Yes