Turnaround Chef Johndavid Hensley Spins Pub Into Blue Oyster Seafood & Oyster Bar

Blue Oyster
Johndavid Hensley of Russian Tea Room fame shucks his new restaurant’s namesake shellfish. (Long Island Press photos)

The newest addition to Long Island’s restaurant scene is Blue Oyster Seafood & Oyster Bar, a white-tablecloth restaurant that debuted last month where sports bar Bottoms Up once stood in downtown Islip.

Executive Chef Johndavid Hensley, a veteran in the restaurant industry, touts classic dishes with contemporary flair and a focus on featuring local and regional ingredients.

“My oysters and clams are pretty much dug right here in our backyard,” says Hensley, sitting in a booth as members of the dining staff began setting tables for the dinner rush on a recent Monday.

Fitting the restaurant’s motif, blue light floods the dimly lit dining room accented by bright white tablecloths and nautical decals. Techno music thumping in the background completes the nightclub feel. Hensley takes a positive, hands-on approach in managing the kitchen.

“I never really tell anybody here what to do,” he says. “I tell them why and how to do it, so they themselves can make discoveries. I want to inspire and empower.”

Hensley, who grew up in the Hamptons, got his start in the restaurant business at an early age.

“My family, we’re restaurant people,” he says. “So I grew up with it in my blood. I just fell in love with the job and the environment.”

He worked his way up the ranks at Hampton Bays’ now-defunct Indian Cove Restaurant and Marina, where he eventually served as executive chef for more than 15 years. In its heyday, the East End fixture ranked high among LI restaurants, receiving four stars from The New York Times three years in a row. Craving the bright lights and big city, he moved to Manhattan in the late ’90s, and bounced around before securing a position as executive chef of the Russian Tea Room, where he worked from 1998 to 2000.

“I got a chance to rub elbows with a lot of political dignitaries,” he recalls. “It helped polish my skills with the service aspect of [the industry]. I fell in love, not just with the food, but also the customers and what they represent.”

In the following years, Hensley returned to the Island, and worked at The Montauk Yacht Club, Greek Bites Grill in Southampton and Claudio’s Restaurant in Greenport. While discussing his long career in the restaurant industry, a much younger chef approached the booth at Blue Oyster Bar and asked Hensley for a second opinion on a meatball.

“It’s fluffy enough, right? Not so dense?” Hensley says, inspecting the chef’s creation. He later explained it was an “Arthur Avenue meatball,” a Blue Oyster appetizer served with whipped ricotta cheese and named for the Little Italy section of the Bronx. After a brief consultation with the other chef, Hensley says, “All right, run with it.”

Throughout the course of his career, Hensley says, skilled chefs often took him under their wing, a practice he’s now adopted. He believes strongly in “paying it forward.”

“The kids here, when I give them a recipe, I want them to feel it and touch it,” he says. “I like others to discover what made me smile when I was younger.”

Blue Oyster Seafood & Oyster Bar serves up a variety of regional and local seafood along with classic dishes and steaks. Appetizers include baked clams with lemon and thyme ($12) and herb-crusted Tuscan wings served with a curry cream dip. Entrée selections include Montauk swordfish with a honey-sweet potato mash and cranberry chutney ($28); traditional paella with shrimp, clams, mussels and chorizo ($32); and French lobster ravioli. That’s in addition to a full raw bar that features a variety of local oysters served daily.

Blue Oyster Seafood & Oyster Bar is located at 524-526 Main St. in Islip. They can be reached at 631-446-4233 or blueoysterlongisland.com