RidgeGate Up Close
Jeff Mahony, Blue Island Oyster Bar & Seafood General Manager
RidgeGate’s newest hot spot, Blue Island Oyster Bar and Seafood, knows how to make both seafood and setting flawlessly approachable. We spoke with General Manager, Jeff Mahony, about the misconceptions around seafood, the skills top notch restaurants need to survive and how he likes his oysters “naked.”
Your original restaurant is in Cherry Creek North. Why was RidgeGate selected to be the home of the second Blue Island Oyster Bar and Seafood?
Jeff: The demographic of this area is really appealing. It’s not just one type of community. We pull young people, business people, residents and retired people. I really like the diversity because it gives us energy. There are lots of people to engage with and they each want something different—a quiet corner, a noisy bar. We can give them that in this space and with our food. This location is bigger than our Cherry Creek footprint, where the whole restaurant is centered around the oyster bar. Here, our focus is still oysters, but we also have fun things like a sushi robot and can serve rolls and sashimi.
I want to talk about your décor. What are these maps behind you on the walls?
Jeff: These are navigation maps that show the depth of the water. Here you can see our own oyster farm, which means you can only find these oysters in our two restaurants.
I see from your menu that the Naked Cowboy and Blue Island #9 are the oysters raised in your farms. Tell us about their names.
Jeff: Our Naked Cowboy is actually named after the famous “cowboy” in Times Square, New York. He’s a legend. The Blue Island #9 is named after a particular island—Blue Island—and “#9” refers to the location in the farm where they are grown, which is called the “bed.”
You have other oysters on the menu as well. How do you help people decide what to order if they aren’t sure what they like?
Jeff: Yes, we have east coast and west coast oysters. The east coast has more salt in the water, so they have a more briny, mineral taste. On the west coast they raise a lot of oysters on the beach or in sacks. There’s also a lot of rain on the west coast, right? So, those oysters get less salinity. They have more of a grassy cucumber melon taste.
How does Jeff Mahony eat his oysters?
Jeff: I like to savor the oyster by tasting it first, using very little sauce, or “going naked” as we say. Some people, like our owner Sean, like the “liquor”—that’s the juice on top of the oyster. He says it reminds him of jumping into the ocean and the taste you get when you lick your lips.
I see the table tent in front of us is advertising caviar?
Jeff: Yes! We partnered with a caviar company in San Francisco. We’re doing caviar “bumps” which is when you let your body naturally warm the eggs in the nook between your thumb and index finger. That’s the best way to taste caviar. We serve it with a mother of pearl spoon so the eggs don’t absorb a metallic taste.
Caviar, oysters, fresh fish—how do you keep your menu from being intimidating?
Jeff: We don’t want to be too serious. We want to be approachable. Our chowder, our fish and chips, our surf clams, our roasted oysters…they are old school east coast. People tend to think seafood is hard to cook. It’s not. Just buy good quality fish and treat it simply. Don’t throw 15 different ingredients into a dish and hope they go well together.
You say it is NOT true that good seafood is hard to find in the Denver area. Why?
Jeff: Yeah, that’s a farce. Let’s say you’re a fisherman. You have to pay the freight to get the fish to me here in Denver. If I don’t like it we will either negotiate a price or you’ll pay the freight cost to ship it back. As a fisherman, you always have to weigh shipping costs. So, would you risk shipping a mediocre fish to Denver compared to a higher quality fish? No, you’ll simply take the mediocre fish down to a restaurant nearby on the shore and it won’t cost you nearly as much.
There must be times of year when it is harder to get certain types of seafood based on the shipping?
Jeff: Yes, but it’s probably not what you’d expect. A lot of excellent fish comes from places like Ecuador, Honduras or Miami. What else comes from those areas? Flowers. When do people tend to buy the most flowers? Mother’s Day. If an airline has a choice between freighting fish or flowers, they will always pick flowers. Why? Because they’re lighter. Fish is priced by weight. It’s packed with gel packs and is heavy. Flowers are done by volume and the size of the box.
If it’s hardest to ship fresh fish around Mother’s Day, should we all just eat steak on that day?
Jeff: No, but as a restaurant, you must have skill in purchasing. It makes all the difference.
Tell us where you acquired your skills…
Jeff: Well, I was originally a journalism major at CSU. My roommate asked if I could help out as a host at the restaurant where he worked. Three years later I was running the kitchen. Seven years later I was running the restaurant. I’ve been in the restaurant industry for nearly 35 years. I love the industry, the vibe, the challenge. It’s never knowing what you’re going to do day to day, but if you love it…you love it.