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Vermillion Water Grille offers fresh seafood in the raw.

click to enlarge Raw seafood at Vermillion.
  • Raw seafood at Vermillion.

Eating raw seafood takes courage, for most people. Eating raw seafood in Arkansas takes courage for all of us.

We’re not talking sushi here. That’s different, because there is a whole industry built around preserving and packing fish for use in Japanese restaurants.

No, in this case we’re talking oysters. The slimy, meaty kind that live in shells. In salt water. Nowhere near here.

A raw oyster isn’t going to keep long, because you can’t exactly shrink-wrap it like tuna or salmon. So if you’re going to eat one, you want to get it as soon as possible after it comes out of the water.

Vermillion Water Grille in Little Rock has just about perfected a system to achieve that, short of teleporting.

And it’s a good thing, because the restaurant added a raw bar in November, offering everything from raw oysters and scallops to sashimi and steamed mussels. Most of their fish are caught in Hawaii and Florida, although the oysters are harvested in Louisiana and the mussels come from Maine. None of the seafood is frozen or previously frozen.

“I call them by two in the afternoon and they will have it to us by 10 a.m. the following morning,” said Michael Selig, Vermillion’s owner and chef. “Every day we get something new in. Being in a landlocked state, it’s refreshing to be able to purchase these kind of things.”

The actual raw bar is an imposing marble structure in the bar area of the restaurant. Customers don’t actually sit there, as you would at a drinks bar, but they can order off the raw bar menu from the main dining area, the bar or the patio.

Three “shooters” lead the offerings: ahi tuna with pico de gallo salsa and chipotle ($2), scallop with Absolut Citroen vodka and cocktail sauce ($3), and tuna-wrapped wasabi oyster with chilled sake ($3.75). All are served in espresso cups with a cocktail fork.

There’s also tuna, unagi and scallop sashimi. You can order it individually for $9.95 a plate, get two selections for $12.95 or the trio platter for $16.95. A half-pound of steamed Florida clams is $5.75 and the same quantity of steamed Maine mussels is only $4.25. Or get a half-pound of peel and eat Florida shrimp for $7.50 (a full pound is $14.50).

Our favorite thing, however, is the Louisiana oysters on the half shell. You can order them individually for a dollar a piece, and they come with crackers, a lemon wedge and cocktail sauce. Having spent some time in coastal areas where the oysters really are plucked straight from the sea mere hours before reaching the table, our expectations for the Little Rock experience were very low. But these oysters were extremely fresh smelling, succulent and delicious. The only disappointment was that our dining companion, never having had a raw oyster before, declined to try one.

(Her description of the ahi tuna shooter was that “it doesn’t taste like fish.” And she meant that as an enthusiastic compliment.)

Selig has instituted a shrimp boil on Thursday nights, running from 4 p.m. to about 8:30 p.m. Soon it will evolve into crawfish and crab boils as the weather warms up. They’re putting white paper down on the patio tables for authenticity and they’ll either dump the critters on the table or serve them on a plate. Plus, draft beers are only $1.25. It all sounds pretty laid back for such a swanky place.

When you’re sitting there with your sleeves rolled up, peeling crab and trying to grip a beer with your greasy fingers, just imagine you’re sitting on a deck overlooking a Maryland bay. That is, until the trolley rolls by.

Vermillion Water Grille

200 S. Commerce
371-9600
Quick bite
The raw bar is the latest addition to this popular River Market restaurant. Oysters, clams, mussels, shrimp and a range of sashimi are on the new menu.
Hours
Lunch served 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner served 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Other info
The raw bar is moderately priced, but the dinner menu is expensive. Credit cards accepted. Full bar and outdoor seating.

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