In search of the best from the shells
Eugenia Uhl photo
To choose among New Orleans’ thousands of oyster dishes is a daunting, but delicious, task.
In an effort to bring some kind of order to the challenge of determining which among them reign supreme in one of four categories - fried, char-grilled/char-broiled, specialty, and raw - I deliberately avoided poor-boys. Though the filling in an oyster poor boy is, indeed, fried, so many other elements of the sandwich can be subjective - the bread, the dressings, the ratio of mayonnaise to ketchup, yada yada. And then it fails to be about the oyster.
And it had to be about the oyster. That’s the point. Other elements were welcome in supporting roles, even prominent ones, but if the oyster had sacrificed itself to the dish via a thick, heavy breading or an unctuous sauce that masked, rather than enhanced, the relatively assertive flavor and texture of the main attraction, it did not make the cut. Baked oyster dishes held under heating lamps until the content of the dish amalgamated into a singular mass? No. Char-grilled varieties blasted atop an inferno, resulting in a shriveled sticky mass coated in burned cheese necessitating a chisel for removal from its shell. No again.
I set out to identify those who celebrate, rather than humiliate, this singular shellfish around which we will increasingly congregate as cooler temperatures usher in the height of oyster season.
The following, in each category, are presented in no particular order.
(Left) Bourbon House raw oysters (Right) Peche Seafood Grill
144 Bourbon St. | 522-0111 | bourbonhouse.com
Raw, wild Gulf oysters have long been offered with Champagne Mignonette and Ghost Pepper Cajun Caviar but recently on Thursdays, Bourbon House has been offering a changing selection of three different farm-raised Gulf oysters until they run out. The rotating varieties allow connoisseurs to experience different flavors from different regions in Gulf waters
Peche Seafood Grill
800 Magazine St. | 522-1744 | pecherestaurant.com
Pêche Seafood Grill offers both wild and farm-raised East, West, and Gulf oyster comparisons.
752 Tchoupitoulas St. | 581-1103 | noshneworleans.com
NOSH (New Orleans Social House), a new warehouse district hot spot features wild Louisiana Gulf oysters at the raw bar
Sac a Lait
1051 Annunciation St. | 324-3658 | sac-a-laitrestaurant.com
At Sac a Lait, raw, wild Gulf oysters are served with wild pepper mignonette, cocktail sauce and horseradish.
105 Metairie Hammond Hwy. | Bucktown | 345-2936 | station6nola.com
On Tuesdays -Thursdays from 3-6 p.m., Station 6, a new Bucktown favorite, offers a half dozen raw, wild Gulf oysters are offered with Cajun Caviar and a glass of Champagne Lallier Grand Reserve Brut for $15.
630 Carondelet St. | 930-3071 | seaworthynola.com
Seaworthy offers an array of both wild and farm-raised oysters from near and far. Farm-raised species include Louisiana Caminada Bay area 3, Alabama Massacre Island area 3, Alabama Point aux Pins area 3, Massachusettes Bass Masters from area 3, and West Coast Fanny Bay area 3. Louisiana area 1.5 wild Gulf East Coast oysters and wild Florida Apalachicola area 2.5,are also available.
1117 Decatur St. | 325-5789 | trinityrestaurantneworleans.com
The raw bar at Trinity is a flowing expanse of flawless super white marble and a rotating variety of both wild and farm raised varieties are offered. Try them topped with lemon, Herbsaint mignonette, and radish sprouts.
Shuck and Jive
HOW TO SHUCK AN OYSTER
1. Find the hinge (muscle) that connects the top and bottom shells at the pointy end of the oyster. Hold the shell top (flat) side up with the hinge facing toward you. Insert the oyster knife into the hinge and point it down into the bottom (cup) of the oyster. Twist the knife to separate the top and bottom shells. You will feel the hinge pop.
2. Run the blade along the top of the shell keeping it close to the top. Now run it from the hinge around to the other side of the oyster, twisting to separate the top and bottom shells. Take care not to tip the shell from side to side or turn it over or the oyster’s liquor will pour out. You want the liquor.
3. When the oyster is open run the knife along the top shell to separate any remaining meat. TIP: You will need an oyster knife and a heavy rubber or canvas glove. (If you are not a professional, wear a glove.)
Sauce It Up
CLASSICE TARRAGON MIGNONETTE
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh tarragon leaves
1/2 cup champagne vinegar
2 teaspoons very finely chopped French shallots
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
Dash of salt
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl.
Chill for at least one hour to allow flavors to marry.
Serve as a dipping sauce with oysters.
Makes 1/2 cup.
Eating Raw Oysters
SERVE UP SAFELY
1. Fresh is Best
Choose fresh oysters with closed shells. If an oyster’s shell is open, it’s likely that it’s already dead. Lightly tap the shell, just in case; if it immediately shuts, the oyster is still alive and safe to eat. If it’s dead it could kill you, too. Not cool. Pitch it.
2. Ship Shape
Oysters should smell sweet, briny, and fresh, not “fishy.” The shells should feel weighty in your hand. A heavy feel indicates the shells are still desirably full of seawater and, therefore, fresh. If the shell feels light the seawater has probably dried up and the oyster has shriveled. Skip it.
3. Cold as Ice
Keep the oysters on ice until ready to shuck. If the oysters are dirty, wash them in ice water and use a stiff brush to scrub the shells clean.
(Top) Oysters en Brochette at Galatoire’s (bottom left) Crispy Fried P&J Oysters at maypop (Bottom right) Goodenough at Carrolton Market
611 O’Keefe Ave. | 518-6345 | maypoprestaurant.com
Chef Michael Gulotta has the stones and the skill to put the most eccentric combinations out there and make them work. Nowhere is this more screamingly apparent than in his Crispy Fried P&J Oysters at Maypop. What sounds pretty benign turns out to be anything but. He dredges plump oysters in a blend of cornmeal, corn flour, all-purpose flour, rice flour, and ground panko seasoned with cayenne pepper, garlic powder and onion powder. He quickly flash fries them for a crisp exterior and silken interior then sets them atop left over soy mash he gets from his friend, Matt Jamie, who ages soy sauce in old Jim Beam barrels. The oysters are then topped with a vinaigrette made with Tabasco mash powder that kicks in as spicy and acidic and instantly imparts a kimchi-like flavor. Additional crunch comes from marinated cucumbers and shaved radish that he tops with shavings of Manchego cheese for additional richness and umami. The last layer is a sprinkle of cilantro leaves. To get the full, kind of mind-blowing experience you will need a big fork to assemble all of those elements into the Right Bite.
209 Bourbon St. | 525-2021 | galatoires.com
To make Oysters en Brochette, Galatoire’s threads plump specimens onto wooden skewers next to curls of poached bacon then the deal is sealed with a sturdy egg-rich batter before the skewers are deep fried. They arrive at table atop a pool of tangy Meuniere sauce and toast points with lemon wedges. A small quirt of the juice enlivens the rich bite.
8132 Hampson St. | 252-9928 | carrolltonmarket.com
Chef Jason Goodenough lent his name to the oyster creation that is certain to be widely imitated and is already destined to become a classic. He serves his Oysters Goodenough at his cozy Riverbend bistro, Carrollton Market. The oysters are flash fried then placed back on their half shells atop a base of creamed leeks studded with bits of Benton’s bacon. They oysters are then topped with a bright Béarnaise crafted with enough tarragon to cut through the fat. Rich is the word and these oysters scream for a glass of cold, crisp, bright champagne.
6100 Annunciation St. | 895-1111 | clancysneworleans.com
Since Clancy’s opened on a quiet Uptown street in the 1980s the restaurant’s signature dish of fried oysters set atop sautéed spinach under a lush, chunky blanket of melted Brie has been a menu staple. Though it came to be in an era when nibbling Brie with Chardonnay was all the rage the now iconic dish survived the era of big hair and remains as brilliant an innovation as the day it was first composed.
539 St. Philip St. | 529-8811
The Paneed Oysters at Irene’s Cuisine are coated with Italian bread crumbs and quickly pan-fried to render a crisp exterior, then served with beurre blanc, plump grilled shrimp, and a spinach salad dressed with a raspberry and balsamic vinaigrette. I will admit to less-than-high hopes for this unorthodox combination, but it really works. The colors and textures on the plate make for a beautiful presentation and the perfect bite merges all of these rather disparate ingredients together for a perfect balance of crunch, fat, acid, astringency, sweetness, and salty brine. It’s simply brilliant.
COATINGS FOR THE CRUNCHIEST FRIED OYSTERS
Panko, Japanese-style breadcrumbs, create a super light and crunchy coating for fried oysters. To use, dredge freshly shucked oysters in flour, then dip in an egg and milk wash and coat liberally with Panko. Fry in small batches, drain and serve immediately.
2. Corn Meal
Many cooks use a traditional coating of equal parts flour and southern white cornmeal for a quick fry. The result: a crisp crust with a soft plump oyster inside. For best results, soak the oysters in buttermilk prior to coating in the flour-cornmeal mix.
Use leftover sleeves of saltines from the raw bar for an easy oyster coating. Place crackers from two whole sleeves in a food processor, and pulse into a fine crumb. Coat freshly chilled and drained oysters in an egg wash and then roll in cracker crumbs. Refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours prior to frying.
(top) Char-grilled oysters at dragos (bottom right) char-grilled oysters at katie's restaurant (bottom Left) char-grilled oysters at sac a lait
3232 N. Arnoult Rd. | Metairie | 888-9254 |
Hilton New Orleans Riverside Hotel | 584-3911 | dragosrestaurant.com
What is probably the most knocked-off oyster dish in history was conceived not by a chef but a second generation restaurant manager. Legend has it that Tommy Cvitanovich, was messing around in Drago’s Fat City kitchen in 1993, when he cobbled together a sauce of garlic, butter and herbs, ladled it over oysters on the half shell, hit them with a pop of Parmesan and Romano cheeses, placed them on the grill, and forever put to rest the question of whether or not seafood and cheese belong together. Drago’s, founded in 1969 by Croatian immigrants Drago and Klara Cvitanovich now turns out as many as 900 dozen charbroiled oysters a day from three locations in two states. The Drago’s Charbroiling Engine Co. fire truck or the a Drago’s-themed EMS vehicles will show up on site to cook what Tom Fitzmorris called “the single best bite of food in New Orleans” for charity events and private parties. If you need your fix but don’t want to leave home Drago’s charbroiling kits are available locally at Rouse’s markets and online. For $69.95 you get three dozen raw, chilled Gulf oysters accompanied by a frozen gel pack, a pint of sauce, a pint of cheese blend, three dozen aluminum cooking shells, and some French bread for mopping up the sauce.
3701 Iberville St. | 488-6582 | katiesinmidcity.com
Katie’s Chef/Owner Scot Craig likes to involve margarine rather than butter in the garlic sauce he uses to top the char-grilled oysters he started serving in his popular Mid-City neighborhood eatery in 2010. “It allows us to cook the oysters at a higher temperature without them burning or drying out. For his Oysters Slessinger, which are also char-grilled he really guilds the lily with a rich topping of minced shrimp, crisp bacon, spinach and—Scot’s go-to weapon—smoky Provel cheese he has his mother in law overnight him from St. Louis—swirled in with the garlic sauce.
Sac a Lait
1051 Annunciation St. | 324-3658 | sac-a-laitrestaurant.com
At Sac a Lait, the chic, deeply personal Warehouse District eatery chefs Samantha and Cody Carrol designed and built with their families in an 1892 cotton mill, the char-grilled oysters arrive not on a predictable try lined with a bed of rock salt but, rather, in the kind of terra cotta dish you expect to find under a houseplant. Assorted small rocks and pebbles form a heat-conducting bed while keeping the oysters aloft. It’s the kind of presentation you would expect to find at a camp, which is the intention. The rusticity ends there as the Gulf specimens are bathed in a flavorful jalapeño and bacon laced garlic butter and cooked under a blanket of rich, salty Pecorino Romano cheese. The oysters are accompanied by house-made French bread that’s brushed with garlic butter before it, too, hits the grill.
4330 Magazine St. | 895-9761 | cassamentosrestaurant.com
Change comes neither easily nor often at Casamento’s, the pristine white-tiled oyster house on Magazine Street that probably looks today pretty much the way it did when Joe Casamento opened it in 1919. Though oysters were long-ago deemed safe to eat and of high quality even during the hottest months, proprietor CJ Gerdes, the founder’s nephew, still closes June-August. More throwbacks to the past: No separate checks and no credits cards. It’s cash only and your crew can figure out how to divvy up the bill on your own. With a clear aversion to change Gerdes set the city abuzz when, in 2014, he started offering char-grilled oysters on the menu. The style here is a straight-up “imitation is the most sincere form of flattery” ode to Drago’s but the restaurant had to hire a second full-time shucker to keep up with the demand for the garlicky beauties, which are grilled outside behind the restaurant. You can also get the fragrant garlic butter ladled over French fries.
Acme Oyster House
724 Iberville St. | 522-5973 | acmeoyster.com
The original Acme Oyster House, at Bourbon and Iberville streets, is ground zero for tourists trying to fulfill a lust awakened in them via their televisions. Crews from shows on The Travel Channel and The Food Network have found their money shots in Acme’s oysters sizzling and popping on the grill under the restaurant’s kaleidoscope of neon signs. Long lines can stretch down the sidewalk, even in the dead of summer. It’s worth the wait to score a seat at the raw bar where vacationing celebrants create a festive air. Char-broiled oysters arrive sizzling in their own juices married with butter, herbs and garlic under a crust of Romano cheese.
Belly Up to the Bar
BEER DIVES & RAW OYSTERS
Beer dives like Cooter Brown's (509 S Carrollton Ave., 866-9104, cooterbrowns.com) and poor-boy/oyster bar hybrids like Acme Oyster House (Acme Oyster House, 724 Iberville St., 522-5973, acmeoyster.com), and Felix's (739 Iberville St., 522-4440, felixs.com) will always be beloved places to slurp down a dozen. The ice-cold oysters that arrive on trays, usually propped up on beds of crushed ice, are irregularly-sized, wild muscular specimens that were dredged from beneath the Gulf's muddy waters. They are typically either slurped up straight from the shell or dunked in sauce of catsup and horseradish with a squirt of lemon then plunked on a saltine cracker and washed down with a beer.
THE BEST BREAD FOR DIPPING
Warm French bread remains the ultimate partner for chargilled oysters; serve whole loaves or chunky slices for dipping in the rich garlic butter, cheese and oyster liquor. Yet, not any loaf will do; New Orleans French bread is unique, with a crisp crust, soft pillowy inside and a toothsome tear. Some of our favorites: Leidenheimer Baking Co. has been in the bread business for more than 100 years, and was named a “Guardian of Tradition” by the Southern Foodways Alliance in 2005. Loaves, sold in their distinctive paper wrappers, are available in grocery stores across New Orleans. Alois J. Binder Bakery has been in the baking business since 1914, and remains a favorite in the kitchens of New Orleanians and restaurants alike. Stop by their Frenchman Street bakery for a loaf or two. LeJeune’s in Jeanerette, Louisiana may be a bit off the beaten track, but the 133-year-old bakery ships loaves of French bread three days a week. Fifth generation bakers use traditional methods and recipes. Locals know to stop and grab a loaf when the bakery pulls them fresh from their ovens.
(TOP) OYSTERS IRENE AT IRENE'S CUISINE (BOTTOM LEFT) OYSTER GRATIN AT DTB (BOTTOM RIGIHT) OYSTER DEVILED EGGS AT TRINITY
8201 Oak St. | 518-6899 | dtbnola.com
Since it opened on Oak Street in March, DTB (Down the Bayou) has become a hotspot for reinterpreted coastal Cajun cuisine, craft cocktails, and an atmosphere that successfully captures elements of the swamp and ‘da camp in a refreshing, contemporary way. Co-Owners Jacob Naquin and Chef Carl Schaubhut both have roots in bayou towns, lending authenticity to the way they gently evolved what they know. Schaubhut worked with Chef de Cuisine Jacob Hammel in creating the excellent Oyster Gratin that arrives sizzling in a small cast iron casserole dish. The surprise of smoked oysters was a welcome one, the smoke suffusing with the plump oysters’ brine to cut through a rich Parmesan-and-charred-onion-laced Béchamel sauce under the crackle of herb-rich gremolata crust. Spread it on rounds of toasted French bread for the perfect bite.
539 St. Philip St. | 529-8811
Since it opened on the then relatively quiet corner of Chartres and St. Philip streets in the early 1990s, the dining rooms at Irene’s Cuisine have been consistently packed with enthusiasts seeking the restaurant’s signature interpretations of Creole-Italian food. The namesake Oysters Irene has been a staple from the beginning, one of the building blocks upon which the cozy, romantic spot built its reputation. Oysters are baked in their shells under minced roasted red peppers, crisp smoky pancetta, bright lemon, and Romano cheese. They arrive golden and crusty, the oysters still plump and briny.
1117 Decatur St. | 325-5789 | trinityrestaurantneworleans.com
Oysters are the house specialty at Trinity with the menu offering them in six preparations, but Chef Michael Isolani’s creativity and daring in topping simple, creamy deviled eggs, the filling enlivened with horseradish, with delicately smoked oysters under scant teaspoon of ghost pepper-kissed Cajun caviar won the day. A serving of three of the bite-sized morsels makes an ideal snack especially with a chilled glass of robust champagne
813 Bienville St. | 523-5433 | arnaudsrestaursant.com
Named for Jean de Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, who founded New Orleans in 1718, Arnaud’s Oysters Bienville became popular under the restaurant’s founder Arnaud Cazanave in the1920s. Served baked on the half shell under a creamy dressing featuring shrimp, mushrooms and Romano cheese bound with breadcrumbs, the elegant dish feels just right for an occasion in the grand French Quarter restaurant. Arnaud’s features five baked oyster dishes and the signature Oysters Arnaud offers samples of all five Bienville, Rockefeller, Oysters Kathryn, Oysters Ohan, and Oysters Suzette.
1403 Washington Ave. | 899-8221 | commanderspalace.com
When I checked in to Commander’s Palace for brunch last spring to discover the Oyster and Absinthe Dome absent from the menu I was compelled to call Chef Tory McPhail to protest. He assured the dish would return seasonally with the return of cool weather and I could have wept with relief. Upon my death an embalming in the concoction (oysters, artichoke, bacon, absinthe, cream, garlic, shallot, tarragon) that awaits my spoon under the lofty, golden puff of pastry would suit me just fine.
Down the Hatch
OYSTER SHOOTERS WITH CHAMPAGNE AND CAJUN CAVIAR
2 cups Champagne or other sparkling wine (you could also use vodka
1/4 cup Cajun Caviar, either original or ghost pepper variety
1/2 cup minced chives
48 Freshly shucked oysters, preferably small, with their liquor
Combine the oysters, their liquor, Champagne or vodka and chives.
Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour.
To each of 24 small, clear shot glasses add two oysters.
Divide the liquid and chives evenly among the glasses.
Top each shot with Cajun Caviar. Serve.
Makes 24 shots
A New Wave
In recent years a greater variety of raw bars have opened. Change was ushered in by the introduction of farm-raised Gulf oysters labeled with their specific place of origin and a greater availability of elegant East Coast specimens like Blue Points and Malpeques, all of which are sold individually, rather the by the pound, as opposed to their wild brethren which commercial fishermen sell based on shell weight.
Though oyster farming has been common in the northeast for years, the volume of southern farmed oysters is expected to quickly surpass the North due to the high nutrient content in the Gulf. Northern oysters are ready for harvest in two years, here they are ready in 14-to-16 months.
In an oyster farming operation, seed oysters grow in hatchery baskets suspended just over the water, each filled with 80 to 100 growing oysters, allowing the swells to gently wash and polish the specimens within the baskets with the slow roll of the tide. Like their northern counterparts, the southern oysters benefit from the safety of the caging system that makes them inaccessible to predators.
As the waves wash over them, the oysters ingest only the Gulf’s rich nutrients, not the mud mixture the bottom feeders subsist on. Once a week, they are lifted out of the water to dry out and bask in the sun, ensuring clean, luminous shells. They are graded and sorted by size and run through a tumbler to break down the ragged edges of their shells. This makes the oyster shells shorter, tougher, and easier to open up without the shell breaking. Tumbling also causes the oysters to clamp down and makes their muscles stronger. The result is a small, plump oyster in a deeply cupped shell.
Farm-raised oysters are usually offered raw on the half shell, either unadorned, with a bright Mignonette sauce, or a simple squeeze of fresh lemon. To mask their flavor and lush texture under a blanket of ketchup just seems terribly wrong.