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In Praise of The Raw Bar at Simjang

A recent selection of oysters from simjang's raw bar on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photography for Mass Foodies)

When I was 13, I lost myself in the buttery warm layers of a warm apple tart from Poilâne Bakery in Paris walking up the Rue du Cherche-Midi. I was so captivated by it, I smashed headfirst into a black iron lamp post. (I saved the tart.)

Something similar happened when I first spotted the raw bar at simjang, the new bunsik-style American-Korean contemporary restaurant from the team behind deadhorse hill. Walking into the restaurant, the allure of the glass case filled with oysters, clams, fish, a Dungeness crab, and incredible tiny scallops pulled me left, away from the host stand, and straight into the edge of the actual bar.

Executive Chef Jared Forman standing behind the raw bar display at simjang on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)
Executive Chef Jared Forman standing behind the raw bar display at simjang on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)

Simjang is Korean for heart and with its raw bar the restaurant is clearly wearing its heart on its sleeve. That raw bar may be just several feet of oysters and other bivalve mollusks and fish but its display is exciting and enticing – a heady mixture of love, passion, and taste. Especially those oysters. Eight varieties of different sizes and species the days I visited, each calling to me with their disparate flavors the way no other spot in town does.

Now before you think my heart analogy is anatomically north of why those oysters have such appeal, the notion that oysters are an aphrodisiac is scientifically unproven. The idea has been around for millennia but there’s nothing conclusive. But at the risk of sounding like I am perpetuating the power of fake news: science be damned. Oysters may be a placebo for desire, but as George Costanza said on Seinfeld, “It’s not a lie, if you believe it.”

Executive chef and co-owner Jared Forman understands. In one context, he called oysters “sexy.” But that was just one context of many. Forman is delighted to do a deep dive into his experience and knowledge of the shallow waters that hold those oyster beds. His tour around the half-dozen oysters I tasted revealed a chef intimately connected to what he serves.

Forman starts with two oysters from the Damariscotta River in Maine. The Maine coast “where the ocean meets the forest” down to Massachusetts captivates Forman, whose definition of a beach was New York City’s Coney Island, which hasn’t been home to oysters since the 19th century. He is particularly rapt by Glidden Points, which look like an oyster that walked (yes, they have a foot) out of central casting. Bottom planted without cages and hand-harvested by divers, they sink into the oxygenated silt and “live in that beautiful muck and do their oyster thing.” With a self-effacing grin, Forman calls them “a fat kid’s oysters” – given their size they shouldn’t be as perfect as they are, but these are meaty, super salty, and perfect. (Case in point, when simjang had some giant Oregon oysters that would be decidedly undelicious raw, they were cooked on the wood-fired grill and sliced.)

Glidden Points from the raw bar at simjang on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)
Glidden Points from the raw bar at simjang on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)

The other Maine oyster on offer during my visit was a Belon. Belons are the legendary European flat oyster of Brittany and true Belons come only from the Belon River there. But Maine Belons seem an equally fine version. Despite their growing proximity, these look and taste nothing like the Glidden Points, which are eastern or Virginica oysters. Belons are a different species entirely and are easily identified in the case where they are wrapped in rubber bands to preserve their freshness and moisture as they lack the ability to keep themselves closed out of water. Like the Glidden Points, Forman notes, these wild Belons are not a beginner’s oyster: “They are super coppery and interesting, but I wouldn’t recommend a half-dozen unless you know what you’re getting into.”

For those who need a gateway oyster, Forman heads south to Massachusetts and Island Creek Oysters – but not the company’s amazing namesake from Duxbury. These are Beach Points, which the company gets from Barnstable. “They are the perfect beginner oyster,” says Forman. “Delicious and easy to love. Nice and salty and crisp. These are for anyone but especially those who come in and want to try oysters but never had one before. The name even sounds approachable.”

Olympias from the raw bar at simjang on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)
Olympias from the raw bar at simjang on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)

The final Virginica or eastern oyster on the plate is a Puffer Petite from Wellfleet Massachusetts. The greenish shell signals its more vegetal flavor but as Forman notes, “It still has that easy brininess.” That brininess is in perfect contrast to the sweetness of two West Coast oysters, the first of which has its origins in Asia and is grown in Williapa Bay, Washington: the Shigoku. Redolent of cucumber and melon, Forman calls them the “ultimate expression of a West Coast oyster,” their sweetness coming from the fact they are a lot less salty than their eastern brethren. These Shigokus are also defined by deep cups which Forman explains comes from the tumbling the oysters like rocks to break off the edges and force them to grow down, not out, which makes for a “real chewy oyster experience.”

Finally, there’s the only oyster indigenous to the West Coast of the United States: the Olympia from south Puget Sound. They are tiny compared to the Gliddens and Belons but buyer beware: these too are not for beginners. “They pack the biggest punch in terms of flavor in the entire case,” Forman says. “They have an appealingly tinny metallic quality to them.”

Chef Forman shucking a Glidden Point from the raw bar at simjang on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)
Chef Forman shucking a Glidden Point from the raw bar at simjang on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)

At simjang, the plate of oysters comes with key limes not lemon – tasty and because as Forman notes, “they’re just so darn cute.” For an additional Korean twist, a fish sauce mignonette and a cocktail sauce spiked with gochujang, the legendary Korean red chili paste based condiment come on the side. Enjoy it all with a bubbly glass of Alice, the Osé Rose Brut Vino Spumante, or Medusa’s “Jang,” made exclusively for simjang.

Forman’s Korean connection to oysters dates back to when he worked for Korean-American chef David Chang at Momofuku. (For a look at the Korean raw and cooked seafood tradition, check out the recent Olympic eating story in the New York Times.) Forman had helped prepare Thomas Keller’s famed “oysters and pearls” dish at Per Se, but the passion and personal connection came from working with Chang. Inspired, Forman set off to know oysters the way Bo Jackson knows sports. (Jackson is one of two players, along with Massachusetts native Howie Long, from Forman’s beloved Oakland Raiders who adorn the simjang walls.). He explored flavors of different oysters, studied their history in America and the world, researched their environmental benefits, befriended farmers who grew them, and tried out different knives to shuck them. (He prefers a smaller New Haven style oyster knife from Dexter Russell in Massachusetts.)

Like many chefs, Forman prides himself on the connections he has with the farmers who provide the oysters and everything on display in the raw bar like littleneck (and soon Manilla) clams. But he gets kinda misty-eyed when we get to those stunning small scallops. Their size says “bay” but they are actually baby Atlantic sea scallops, which are. . . illegal to harvest wild.

Executive chef Jared Forman shows us a quick trick in shucking.

Boasting the region’s finest raw bar, simjang brings in an exotic mix of oysters, including the only oyster indigenous to the West Coast of the United States: the Olympia from south Puget Sound. Executive chef and co-owner Jared Forman shows us a quick trick in shucking.

Posted by Mass Foodies on Tuesday, March 13, 2018

But before you go calling the food police, Forman explains that they are actually legally farmed by lobstermen – something until recently he had never seen before. When they pull traps, there are always baby scallops clinging to the ropes. Instead of letting them just die on the boat, the lobstermen Forman works with “grab the tiny guys just like they were an oyster seed, put them in oyster bags, and drop them down into deep water so they are in their natural environment. When they are big enough, they pull the bags up and introduce some back into the environment because they can survive and sell the rest to us as a farm-raised crop. So we are not illegally harvesting but we are actually promoting healthy ecosystems.”

Simjang's spicy seafood stew, which also features baby cuttlefish, and Florida rock shrimp. (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)
Simjang’s spicy seafood stew, which also features baby cuttlefish, and Florida rock shrimp. (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)

And oh the flavor. Raw they are just nuggets of pure sweet scallop joy. They may be expensive but worth every bite, most notably in the spicy seafood stew, which also features baby cuttlefish, Florida rock shrimp, and pieces of whatever fresh fish is around.

Simjang is more, of course, than its raw bar. That said, it would make Forman completely happy to just see people lined up at the deep rock maple bar having a Jang, oysters, Korean fried chicken, and heading happily off. But come back another time for the rest of the menu: “I love oysters, I love bold Korean flavors,” Forman says, “mixing them is what I think is great about this country and great about food.”


A Closer Look with Erb Photography

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From Momofuku Ssäm to Gramercy, Jared Forman Brings deadhorse hill to Worcester

Jared Forman from deadhorse hill on Main Street in Worcester, MA (Photograph by Alex Belisle)

Let’s just get one thing out of they way first: Jared Forman, chef of the spectacular deadhorse hill in Worcester, is . . . a Mets fan. Diehard. It’s the first thing he talks about when we sit down. And no, it does not soften the blow of this Boston baseball betrayal when he reminds me that Mets pitcher Ron Darling (member of the hated 1986 team and whose autographed picture sits on the wall outside of the restaurant’s kitchen) hails from Millbury.

Suffice it to say, Forman will not have Sox fans at hello. After that? Absolutely.

Locally hot smoked trout. (Photograph by Alex Belisle)
Locally hot smoked trout. (Photograph by Alex Belisle)


For one thing, Forman has a deep reverence for the history of Worcester right down to the building his restaurant occupies on Main Street. He is sourcing local ingredients from trout to beans to greens to bread. And the food he makes from those ingredients? His approach is good news for Worcester, even if most people ‘round here don’t like strawberries named Darryl.

Forman does come by the Mets thing honestly. He was born and raised in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn and moved to Queens, home of the Mets, as a teenager. The borough’s international intensity fueled his passion for all things food and he soon decided to pursue a culinary degree at Johnson & Wales. His externship was at one of New York City’s most acclaimed fine dining destinations: Thomas Keller’s Per Se. The résumé is just as impressive from there: Michael White’s Marea, David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm, and Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern (under Michael Anthony and Nancy Olson).

“I saw fine dining at Per Se. I saw David Chang win a James Beard Rising Star chef award [in 2007] without a Michelin star and without being too fine or too lowbrow, just doing fun shit every day that I got used to,” Forman says. “Only when I went to Gramercy did I learn all the traditional stuff like working with stocks and sauces. I went from the funky to the refined. Kinda cool because I think of a dish differently than someone with a more classical background. I learned this stuff backwards.”

After Gramercy, Forman took his backwards approach to Watertown and joined his Momofuku kitchen mate Tim Maslow in transforming Strip T’s from a tiny sandwich shop into a modern dining destination beyond Boston. They even managed to convert many of the customers who had been eating tuna melts for years and wow them with food they had never tasted before. Thus, when Forman and his business partner, Sean Woods, were ready to open their own place, they did not hesitate to look even further out to Worcester, where Woods lived, for a larger customer base. The success of Strip T’s in blue-collar Watertown gave them reason to be optimistic.

Jared Forman in the kitchen of deadhorse hill on Main Street in Worcester, MA (Photograph by Alex Belisle)
Jared Forman in the kitchen of deadhorse hill on Main Street in Worcester, MA (Photograph by Alex Belisle)

“There are hungry people out here who don’t want to and don’t have to commute into Boston for a great meal,” says Forman.

But where to put down their stake? They knew that they didn’t want to follow the crowds. They wanted to be about the future in an area deeply tied to the city’s past, not just the present. “When I said we were going to open in Worcester people said, ‘Shrewsbury Street?’ No, I wanted to be part of a new wave. Not what Worcester was or is but both of them together for the future. I love where are we going and where we were in the golden age.

Some might see Main Street as a disadvantage or a sign of a city past its prime. Not Forman and Woods. “If you look down Main Street from where we are, I feel like I am on one beautiful street in New York. Nothing has changed and anything is possible,” Woods says. “We are tied to the past and then looking past what can be. Look at this building. We ripped down the real horsehair plaster walls to expose the original brick for the first time since it was built. The tin ceiling is 161 years old and gorgeous. This used to be the Bay State Hotel. It was world class. It was the place to be. It was legit. It can be again.”

Forman and Woods built out their vision of old and new themselves, doing much of the work on their own and aspiring to create something casual that showcased their personalities as well as the food and beverages that they want to eat and drink. This means right down to the dishes, which might be a vintage plate from a thrift shop next to a handmade wood bowl from the Berkshires.

“We wanted to create a place we wanted to be in,” says Forman. “That means comfortable and being welcome. We call it ‘modern hospitality.’ That’s something I learned at Gramercy Tavern. They make you feel welcome as soon as you walk in the door. They elevate it so that their service is so proper but at the same time super casual as well. And they do it better than anyone else. That’s why Gramercy is Danny Meyer’s crown jewel.”

Matching Meyer – reigning king of New York City restaurant hospitality – is a tall order but one Forman is dead serious about working hard to achieve: “Across the board in my career, I went into everything thinking I don’t know shit. Sean didn’t think we knew anything about opening a restaurant, because worked in restaurants before. And it’s not about us. I learned at Gramercy that everything that you do on a plate you should think about the customer experience with that plate. I see chefs adding stuff and doing fancy things. But if you can’t eat it without everything on the plate making complete sense then you fail in a hospitality sense. So every time I try and create something, I think about that.”

They also thought about all of that and more when they chose the name, deadhorse hill, which is unexpected and exactly what Forman and Woods wanted. They didn’t want to be a Something “Restaurant” or “Tavern.”

“We wanted to identify ourselves as this is who we are and there is no place like us,” says Forman. So the name reflects their desire to honor history and transform it for the customer. There is also a direct connection to the space: The actual Deadhorse Hill is one of the seven hills of Worcester, named for its ability to kill horses that followed its climb towards Leicester. From 1905 to 1911, it was also the site of a world-class auto race. The Bay State Hotel was the headquarters for the club that ran the race.

And thankfully and delightfully, Forman’s food matches the grand aspirations of the past, the current space, and his culinary experience, but also reflects the broad range of what he and his staff like. So you’ll find Southern Fried Chicken Thighs, Memphis Ribs, and Spaghetti & Meatballs as well as Poached Scottish Salmon served with an Herb Curry and Chanterelles and an Aged Duck Breast with Mustard Spaetzle and Creme Fraiche.

“Everything on the menu is me,” Forman says. “I want to have some approachable things so that people who walk in off the street and are not expecting a restaurant like this are able to eat something.”

Forman also believes that deadhorse hill has the potential to be a high caliber restaurant, but he knows he is catering to an audience with different needs and expectations: “I don’t want to price people out. I don’t want to be so different that customers can’t relate to us. But someone who wants something more adventurous? I want to provide for them too. We have things that are lowbrow, highbrow, and something that will satisfy everyone, but everything has a reason and as much passion behind it as anything else.”

Which means that fried chicken has as much thought behind it as the duck breast. Or consider the Grilled Skirt Steak served with mole (an unsweetened Mexican chocolate sauce) and seared avocado. Most people when they order a strip are not thinking chocolate. Few people when eating avocado even think to sear it. Forman wants you to know both are delicious: “If someone says, ‘I’m a meat and potatoes guy. I just want a steak.’ It’s an awesome option for them and someone who wants to be adventurous. Everyone has had fried sweet potato wedges, but have you had those wedges cooked out in chicken and duck fat and covered in house smoked pastrami and housemade XO sauce? I know that everyone in Worcester’s old guard likes salmon. So we bring in responsibly raised salmon, sous vide it to order, and put an herb curry on it. Now we are appealing to someone who just wants salmon and someone who wants an interesting flavor profile.”

For fun, Forman also deep-fries the salmon head, which sells out every time it’s on the menu. He’s also playing with the menu so don’t expect to find many mainstays. For example, that salmon is evolving into a dish made from local trout hot smoked to order served with the same herbed curry and chanterelles and then triticale berries and green garlic – all local.

“What’s next is tomorrow’s menu,” Forman says. “I want people to walk in and say I had this last time and I was blown away and I can’t wait for the next thing. I want to be there for these people.”

Those people are key. After all, the idea of a refined new restaurant on Main Street – the first of any note since Armsby Abbey opened in 2008 – might have been unpredictable. But the community on Main Street and beyond, including from Armsby and its customers, has been overwhelming supportive: “The Armsby guys and the people at Volturno and BirchTree Bread became our friends. We push each other to be better.”

Forman then smiles and says everything has been way better than they expected: “We get people in here that are excited. We do get people who don’t know what to expect. But we turn those people into regulars. I expected it would take more time but people were really waiting for this.”

Aged Duck Breast with Mustard Spaetzle and Creme Fraiche (Photograph by Alex Belisle)
Aged Duck Breast with Mustard Spaetzle and Creme Fraiche (Photograph by Alex Belisle)