By Grace Williamson
Walking into Seabear, I heard a happy kitchen staff hard at work. The nautical-chic décor brought me to a high end seafood restaurant on the east coast, with an added ambiance only Athens can generate. I looked to the bar, where Noah Brendel, owner and operator, and Patrick Stubbers, executive chef, were hard at work. The two were so kind as to lend me their time to answer a mix of questions concerning oysters and the industry, their eclectic seafood menu, and the Athens local food community.
Seabear stands out from other locally owned seafood restaurants because it places a specific focus on oysters. Patrick was quick to agree: “the raw bar is definitely a highlight…we have a lot of folks who come in for a dozen oysters, and a grilled cheese sandwich.” Of course, Athens does not have a coastline rich with such delicacies, so bringing these oysters to the tables of guests is an involved process. Patrick describes, “As far as getting oysters in, and selecting them, we have a really great partnership with a couple different companies,“ he says. “Our rep Ronnie Bolton takes care of us unbelievably well.” In short, Ronnie compiles a list of the oysters that come in through her distributors. She then shares this with Patrick, he makes his selections. Patrick moved further in to the details, explaining there is a list of shared distributors, and they choose based on price and “regionality.” The oyster list will vary week to week, Patrick explains, “It just depends on who’s really flush, and who’s not.” In layman’s terms, this means the oyster list depends on which areas have a good harvest of oysters, considering both quantity as well as quality.
The location of oysters has a great influence on their taste, and size. Favorites among customers and staff at Seabear often come from Maine, and Massachusetts. “The whole Cape Cod area,” Patrick describes, “is a mecca for oyster growth. Usually they are a little plumper, and pretty salt forward.” While the regions such as Cape Cod may be well known for their oysters, there are also smaller farmers outside these regions that Patrick considers, “more boutique.” These smaller regions, he explains, are about, “smaller production, maybe a family running it, a couple brothers, or some friends.”
It is amazing that these oysters have the ability to link Athens with small businesses up the coast, and it creates a sense of intimacy. However, it is a mission of Seabear to promote the Georgia oyster industry, so some of Searbear’s oysters are, in fact, from Georgia. Patrick was happy to say, “We just sold out of 100 pounds of Georgia oysters. They are really tasty, and really great.” Unfortunately, the industry in Georgia, he adds, “isn’t quite set up to get them off the coast.” Noah interjected here, saying, “We are trying to let farmers know there is a demand for them…It falls on us to educate the consumer that these oysters are here, and they are good.”
Oysters aside, the menu at Seabear still has much to offer. Patrick and Noah have worked to create a brand of cuisine that is unmatched thus far, and speaks to every type of food lover. Because the menu is very shellfish based, the restaurant has a vegetarian niche. Many have heard of the Ramen Noodle Monday’s Seabear hosts, but not many know, Patrick says, “it is completely vegan friendly.” This Monday special is prepared for days in advance, and prepares a ramen dish for customers to enjoy just once a week. Noah added, “The avocado toast is a big hit, amongst the vegetarians. Also, it is very cleansing, and refreshing, and a nice way to start the meal here. It introduces you to flavors going into the menu.”
I will quickly vouch for the toast because it is simply delightful, but there are many more dishes that have been a favorite by all. Patrick says, “the green curry mussels are huge for us—people love that, especially in the winter.” They also offer a fabulous scallion pancake, which he explains is, “like a Chinese street food that we top with spicy crab, radishes, and sesame vinaigrette.” On Thursdays, the restaurant has a special low country boil that brings in people from all across town. Seabear’s menu creates a unique seafood experience, adding an Athenian’s flare.
When discussing the local movement with Patrick, he described the beautiful feel of community that surrounds local business. Patrick was proud to say how welcome he feels in the local food community, saying, “I’ve been a part of it for many, many years, and I think one of the best things about Athens is that people do follow you from place to place. I have worked at some awesome places, and I definitely have people that help us, and keep us going.” The wonderful part about putting time into this community is their willingness to give that time back. Athens has one of the best local food communities in the state, and it is because of this, Patrick says, “Seabear definitely has a relationship with as many people as they can…it started with the Farmers Market…the quality of food is awesome.” Noah elaborated on this sentiment, saying, “We source locally from farms when we can. We have a regular standing order with Woodland Gardens every week. When we can, we will get produce local.”
Noah continued on to say: ”The gomasio we get from Three Porch Farms, which is like a sesame seed blend.” Patrick added that they used the gomasio, “on three different dishes. It’s a value added product from a local farm.” The Athens Farmers Market continues to grow, and allows local products to be more readily available. Seabear has experienced this first hand, as Patrick explains, they can now, “get some larger orders, and they will deliver, or meet us at a pick up spot.” The local movement stretches beyond fresh produce, and authentic ingredients. It envelops the spirit of a community.
Eat local, my friends.