The Pearl of Downtown: Tempest Oyster Bar

Photo by Eric Tadsen

Madison has long been known as a foodie haven for local fare and farm to fork restaurants. But thanks to Tempest Oyster Bar on East Wilson Street, this capital city is also home to one of the best East Coast-style seafood restaurants in the Midwest.

Looking for a daily dinner menu of fresh, flown-in oysters from the East or West Coast? Check. How about a Blue Marlin steak that’s more satisfying than a T-bone? Check. Craft cocktails? Check. Seasonal sides, famous hash browns, and local bands on the weekends? Check, check, and check.

Photo by Eric Tadsen

When it opened four years ago in what was once Restaurant Magnus, townies asked owner Henry Doane why on earth he was opening a seafood restaurant in a place that’s more than 1,000 miles from an ocean. His answer was simple, “All great cities have a good seafood restaurant. Madison has a few, but I thought there was room for one more—a really great seafood restaurant with a big, brash East Coast style.”

And that’s certainly one thing Tempest Oyster Bar does not lack: style. Guests enter through an unassuming door off a busy city street, only to turn a corner and be immediately greeted by a remarkable 1948 wooden Chris Craft boat. A left turn flows into a long, welcoming room filled with a stunning backlit bar, built by Henry from stacked wine bottles. Along the back wall is an unexpected seating area enveloped by a colossal plaster clamshell bathed in blue light.

As is not always the case in one-of-a-kind restaurants, at the Tempest Oyster Bar the food equals, and often even outshines (if that’s possible), the ambiance. While the menu changes seasonally, three signature dishes keep customers coming back for more. First is the aforementioned Blue Marlin. Served with a broiled hazelnut, pesto crust, lime aioli, and crispy fried leeks, the fish is firm, similar to a steak, with white, succulent meat, prepared medium-rare. It’s the perfect balance of flavors and textures, with lemon, salt, and butter often rendering customers speechless. “The Blue Marlin is a dish I eat all the time, and I mean all the time,” Henry says. “It fills you up without feeling bloated—it’s the perfect alternative to a big steak.”

Photo by Eric Tadsen

Speaking of steak, the Tempest offers a second signature dish: the Carpetbagger. A tenderloin filet is marinated in dark beer, garlic, olive oil, and Tabasco, brown sugar, and lemon juice. Fresh oysters are stuffed, skewered, and grilled inside the meat, spilling out only when the steak is cut, like opening a birthday present. It’s the kind of dish your boyfriend orders only to have his girlfriend eat most of it off his plate.

Third up is the restaurant’s famous Shrimp, Scallop, and Grits, a take on the classic Southern dish. An ample piece of pan-seared pork belly is accompanied by silky smooth parmesan grits, two scallops and three shrimp, served with a slice of lemon and white wine and butter sauce. The smokiness of the pork perfectly balances the seafood, all cooked medium rare.

In addition to a trio of signature dishes and impressive seasonal menu, customers will want to order hash browns at Tempest. Henry considers himself something of “a hash brown aficionado.” Since first opening the Blue Marlin in 1990, Henry has been perfecting hash browns for decades, and it shows. Perfectly crisped on the outside while firm and fluffy on the inside, the hash browns can be a meal unto themselves.

Before being seated at a table to enjoy an impressive menu, patrons are encouraged to stop at the bar for an oyster appetizer. A changing oyster menu is printed daily, reflecting the types of raw oysters that have been flown in and prepared that day. Selections include both East and West Coast options. Henry says West Coast oysters tend to be more on the briny side, but often feature more exotic shells with diverse colors. East Coast oysters are what most people are used to, with a smoother shell and milder flavor. Henry says every oyster on Tempest’s menu—some days as many as 10—is dramatically different.

Photo by Eric Tadsen

“Oysters taste different, depending on where and how they’re grown,” Henry says. “The salinity of the water and the food that they’re eating results in rarely finding two types of oysters that are the same.” For example, the Blue Point oyster from Long Island, New York, carries subtle pine and anise notes, while the Dabob Bay oyster from the Hood Canal in Washington is light, crisp, and salty. Customers can also order “oyster shots”—combining regional oysters with vodka, sake, tequila, and lime.

No matter the type of oyster or dinner one orders, the goal of Tempest Oyster Bar is to present fresh seafood, both ocean and lake, in a simple manner that showcases the seafood without smothering it. “You’ll find us serving more unconventional dishes than most seafood restaurants, and that’s on purpose,” Henry says. “We use seasonal and local produce to accompany dishes, which results in some really unique plates.”

And what about the argument of serving seafood in a landlocked state? Contrary to popular belief, just because a restaurant is on the coast doesn’t mean it is always serving fresh seafood from its adjacent water source. “Actually, you’re going to get the freshest seafood the closer you live to Chicago,” Henry says. “Most seafood is caught, shipped to Chicago, and distributed from there. So here in Madison, we’re sitting pretty.”

Jeanne Carpenter is a cheese geek and food writer living in Oregon, Wisconsin.