You can tell a lot about raw oysters by the company they keep. At most bars, it's one or two old friends, say, Tabasco or horseradish. At St. Roch in Raleigh, it's a party. Cocktail sauce and mignonette, lemon wedges and pickled banana peppers, fried saltines and more fried saltines. The oysters are from Cedar Island but they dream of New Orleans, as does most of the menu, save for a couple of dishes that fantasize about Japan ("Nori'd" roasted oysters, miso broth-braised clams).
St. Roch was named for the NOLA neighborhood where chef-owner Sunny Gerhart grew up. You may recognize the name from his work with James Beard Award-winning Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen. Gerhart was her sous chef when she opened her first venture, Poole's Diner, in 2007. He went on to lead the kitchen at Joule, Christensen's coffee shop-meets-restaurant. When he put in his notice early last year to pursue opening his own place, she had another idea.
"After thinking through his situation, I realized I had the opportunity to create an entry point into this business for Sunny in a way that's unique from what anyone else could offer him," she wrote in a November 2016 press release.
Indeed, it was unique. Gerhart wouldn't have to leave to open his own restaurant—because he was already in it. Joule would close and Gerhart would recast the concept as St. Roch. It opened in May, evoking the déjà vu of a room repurposed, like a kid who comes home from college to find Pilates equipment where his dresser used to be. There are industrial-chic lights and animal portraits. Where a communal table once stood, there are now black leather booths.
Gerhart's cuisine is a welcome addition to the Triangle, where Cajun options are scarce. In Hillsborough, there's LaPlace. In Raleigh, Rey's and The Big Easy (which has a second location in Cary).
Then again, to describe St. Roch's concept as Cajun wouldn't exactly be right. It's more specific than that: Cajun with an emphasis on seafood and seafood with an emphasis on oysters. The glowing neon light outside the restaurant—it depicts an open-mouthed oyster with not a pearl but a diamond inside—gives you an idea.
Or just go in and glance at the menu. Its four sections consist of small, big, raw oysters, and roasted oysters. Technically, there are five, if you count "Sunny's Leave a Little Room," a box in the bottom right listing a few desserts like brioche beignets. I ate at the restaurant twice and failed to leave a little room twice.
I tried. The small plates (from $9 to $16) lean toward big, and the big ones ($18 to $39 for a one-pound ribeye) leave you with leftovers. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a thing. A small and a big is likely too much for one person, but some oysters and a small or some oysters and a large, depending on your hunger, could be just right. And maybe that's the point.
The most exciting facet of the menu is none of those, though. It's the cocktails. Try Nancy's Dress, with rum, lime, orange oil, and, of all things, balsamic vinegar. It sounds like some squeeze bottles got mixed up. But it's sweet and tangy, like a great shrub.
Bobby Boucher, a reposado tequila drink, makes a similar case for savory cocktails. "It's like a margarita," my server said, "but better." Lime and a cayenne-salted rim and, why not, the holy trinity. Not that one, the other one: onion, celery, and green bell pepper. It's the foundation for countless Cajun recipes, like jambalaya and gumbo—and, now, cocktails.
These drinks were made to go with $1 oysters (Tuesdays or any night from five to six). Nancy's Dress, a dozen dead-cold oysters, and those damn fried saltines, and I feel, for a few sips and slurps, wholly at peace.
The roasted oysters were less lovely. They come in three varieties: barbecued (lemon, rosemary, cayenne, parmesan), Tasso'd (pork jowl tasso, sage, filé, Gruyère), and Nori'd (miso, lime, chili, panko). I ordered the last. They tasted like butter. My friend compared their richness to a "church casserole," but I'm Jewish, so this only made me not want to try a church casserole.
If you aren't one for oysters, all is not lost. Your next-best bet is the cold crab and shrimp, an herby salad begging to be scooped up with crispy ciabatta. Or if you're feeling cozy, get the barbecued shrimp. This riff on the NOLA classic—a saucy dish with punchy ingredients like Worcestershire, hot sauce, and lemon—has coconut, lime, and cilantro. Peel-and-eats swam in a gravy-thick sea, and I wanted to dive in and join them.
I'm not one to use the term "umami bomb," but if I were, it would be about these clams. Miso broth, oyster mushrooms, pork belly, and poached egg, all somehow upstaged by a dollop of crispy chili made with fried shallots, garlic, and shrimp paste. Beg for a side of it, take it home, and hide it from whomever you live with.
If you aren't one for seafood at all, you'll make do. Get the kitchen-sink giardiniera salad with tomatoes and squash, olives and pickles, peppers and provolone. Its croutons are very, very crispy, but some people like that. The red beans and rice have a plump homemade red hot (great if you like red hots), but my friend and I couldn't stop admiring the buttery white rice.
But maybe that's the best part of St. Roch: always being on your toes. Sometimes you are impressed by the unexpected. Other times, it's just a really cold oyster, or a perfect grain of rice.