By Julian Brunt
The Pearl Hotel in Bay St. Louis is known for its elegant aesthetics and charm, with lovely rooms and suites looking out on the quaint city and its bay. But what people are really talking about is its restaurant, Thorny Oyster. It’s not a combination you will find in many small Southern towns: a truly classy restaurant in a grand hotel, very European, and I must tell you upfront, Thorny Oyster is one of the best restaurants I have visited in a very long time.
It is beautifully designed, with blond wooden floors, custom-designed green wallpaper, high ceilings with white globe ceiling lights that look like clusters of grapes. The bar is topped in white marble with black chairs, very classy, but the feature I like the most is the open kitchen, where you can sit at the bar and watch your meal being made.
What is even more impressive is that the restaurant was designed by Executive Chef Jeffrey Hansell. He started his culinary career as a dishwasher, then moved to a po’boy shop, not exactly an exalted start, but if you can make it through the trenches of any busy restaurant, you are on your way to proving your chops. Hansell moved on to culinary school, then Commanders Palace in New Orleans, and finally Birmingham. He recently teamed up with Chef Lauren Joffrion, the sous chef (recently of Fields Steaks and Oysters, also in Bay St. Louis), and the two of them have made a rocket ship start for Thorny Oyster.
I have been following Chef Joffrion for several years and think of her as one of the young rising culinary stars in the South. Everything I have ever had that she prepared was sensational, beautifully plated and creatively conceived. She is also a pastry chef, and it is not often you find a chef that does well on both sides of the kitchen.
I have eaten at Thorny Oyster three times and have been increasingly impressed each time. The grilled oysters were amazing: not overcooked and not over sauced, served with smoky grilled house-made focaccia, perfect for dipping the buttery sauce the oysters were cooked in. The Florida clams, with house-made chorizo and smoked tomato broth, were “wow” good, as were the mussels and fries, a famous Belgium combination. All of the desserts that Chef Lauren has made for me were just perfect, as was the spiced pumpkin panna cotta with salted pecan brittle and torched meringue I had during my last visit.
But the one dish I have to rave about is the bouillabaisse. As I am sure you know, bouillabaisse is a famous French seafood stew, which originated in Marseille. It is not an easy recipe, and you seldom find it on a menu, but when you do, it is going to be a classy place like Galatoire’s in New Orleans. It is a brave act to include this dish on a menu, and to find it in Bay St. Louis is surprising.
The bouillabaisse at Thorny Oyster is made with fresh seafood, locally caught grouper, Gulf shrimp, mussels and crab claws. The seafood was perfectly cooked, a tough feat with the diversity of seafood in this dish, but what really distinguishes this dish is the sauce. It is light, with hints of saffron, but bursting with flavor, add to that the smoky grilled bread for dipping, and you have a dish that is almost beyond description. Honestly one of the best things I have eaten in years.
It is hard to come up with the right superlative to describe Thorny Oyster. Two of the most talented chefs in the state, a beautifully designed restaurant and food that is beyond compare.
If you are a foodie of any caliber, no matter how far away you live, you have to check this place out. A night at The Pearl and a meal or two at Thorny Oyster would make for a very fond memory indeed.
104 North Beach Boulevard, Bay St. Louis