On a recent trip to New England, our gang’s urgent first stop was at an oyster bar. Briny, tangy, creamy, large or small—the many varieties of mollusks have characteristics as unique as their origination. Yet they all reflect the fresh taste of the sea. If you’ve tried an oyster before and didn’t fall in love, you simply haven’t met your perfect match.
The Reef Seafood Bar at Twin Arrows Navajo Casino Resort is passionate about winning you over. Guests who take a break from slots to slurp an oyster or more are wowed by the seriously fish-forward menu. Stewart Weinstein is the man at the helm of the evolving, inspired kitchen. Trading on the firm footing of an East Coast oyster bar, Weinstein expanded the concept with sushi. Inventive ingredients or traditional elements pair or push the boundaries, creating ambitious amalgamations.
The self-taught chef began his training early on. “Cooking was born of necessity. My mom had an amazing cookbook collection,” Weinstein said, “but she couldn’t cook to save her life.” So Weinstein read them and learned. Professionally, he attended East Valley Institute of Technology, where he earned a scholarship to Johnson and Wales University and the opportunity to work with premiere chefs. Still, Weinstein’s joy is in training his Reef crew. “I’m proud of our local team. I love educating and interacting with the staff. They have a good knowledge of food, and I push them to elevate their skills and create new dishes.”
The Reef presents a sleek setting with an exhibition kitchen. In keeping with the integration of Navajo culture throughout Twin Arrows, the seafood bar blends upscale, modern features with the age-old story of creation. The Reef pays tribute to White Shell Woman, the spiritual goddess and mother figure to the Navajo people. The pearly shell color of the bar countertops compliments the wood veneer ceiling and walls, representing her harmony and beauty. The translucent blues overall allude to the depths of the ocean and her home.
Which brings us back to good things from the sea. Oysters are a natural for small plates, and the array of choices makes sampling them a nautical education. The mollusks possess flavor profiles akin to wine, involving salinity and complexity. Some qualities are born of the depths, such as seaweed and minerals, while subtleties hint of sweet, vegetal or umami. The Reef obtains their world class bounty from sustainable Santa Monica Seafood.
Here is a flavor round-up on the half-shell and what condiment with which to pair them. The small Kusshi, in Japanese “precious,” from British Columbia in this case, has a cornucopia shape and ultra-clean taste. Weinstein suggested the lemon caviar. The Eastern is medium with a strong, full-bodied taste best accompanied by tangy, house-made cocktail sauce mignonette. The Coromandel oyster, from its namesake bay in New Zealand, is medium-sized with a deep cup of rich, briny liquid and a cucumber finish that swims nicely in champagne vinegar. The large Gold Band oyster is a Louisiana dream of buttery-ness best suited for Tabasco.
Thinking bigger, the steamed Maine lobster is a bargain pound-and-a-half beast that comes pre-cracked for ease. It’s poached to perfection in court bouillon and served with drawn butter. The signature lobster salad, with its meat atop grilled romaine, is littered with apple wood-smoked bacon, gorgonzola and parmesan, plus house-made garlic croutons and garnished with anchovies and lemon mustard vinaigrette.
Ciopppino means “chopped” and is a made of whatever mother had on hand as far as fish. The poor man’s stew at The Reef is served San Francisco style in in zesty tomato broth with the white fish of the day.
The sushi is made with premium, medium-grain Nishiki rice, which is triple-washed. The King Roll consists of a house mix of crab and spicy tuna, cucumber and onion, topped with seared tuna and Masago, or fish roe, and a sesame sprinkle. As far as sashimi, the cobia was succulent and dense.
Dessert is dressed as sushi at The Reef as well. A crepe-wrapped, rice pudding roll, suffused with coconut milk, holds a triple berry center. And adding to the fun, the chef played bartender, coming up with some imaginative cocktails. Stew’s mojito is fresh citrus with ginger beer. The mermaid secret is fragrant and blue with coconut and rum with a lemon zest that guarantees a good night. My recommendation? Order the roasted jalapeño margarita.
No matter whether it’s a win or loss on the casino floor, visitors are finding they can score great seafood at The Reef.
NAMLM Gail G. Collins