The 18th-century satirist, Jonathan Swift once said: “It was a bold man who ate the first oyster.” Thankfully someone took the leap of faith and cracked into the hard shell. The oyster culture in New Orleans has a long history. In Louisiana, early French settlers were said to have harvested oysters, and as oysters rose in popularity, the collection, sale, and distribution of the bivalves expanded. Today, Louisiana oyster production remains strong, ranking second only to Washington state.
New Orleans is a city steeped in traditions and oysters aren’t exempt, but these traditions are shifting in some subtle and not so subtle ways. Raw oysters were once considered a working man’s food, with traditional places like Casamento’s and Felix’s setting the tone. But over the years the tide has been shifting, and establishments like Bourbon House have been setting a different stage, one that celebrates the oyster and its delicate nuances, as well as its place among the other seafood treasures from the Gulf.
Since 2002, the Plateaux de Fruits de Mer at Bourbon House has been an awe-evoking dish consisting of multiple tiers of Louisiana seafood from marinated crab claws, to boiled jumbo shrimp, to oysters on the half-shell, both in their birthday suits, as well as topped with house-made mignonette. This tower of seafood ups the ante in the oyster bar game, pairing elegantly with champagne and made to be shared with a group. Bourbon House doesn’t forget its roots or its location on rowdy Bourbon Street. That’s why you’ll find oysters on the half-shell for $1 during their happy hour, which are perfectly washed down with a $3 draft beer. Or, if cooked is your style, their char-broiled version is a perfect balance of garlic, lemon, butter, and parmesan. And, if you’re a football fan whose version of tailgating involves pre-gaming at restaurants rather than street-side, Bourbon House’s black and gold oysters maybe just your speed. With black and gold caviar, they’re a decadent and sophisticated way to eat your team colors.
We know that New Orleanian oyster culture runs deep and locals have been eating oysters since they could sit at the table. What type of oyster is everyone eating? The typical local answer is “Gulf Oyster.” This same question asked on the West Coast would produce a wide range of answers depending, same goes for the East Coast. There is no blanketed response like “Pacific Oyster” or “Atlantic Oyster,” it’s a Kumamoto oyster or a Wellfleet oyster, or a Bluepoint, or a Miyagi with the name of the oyster determined by the specific location where the oyster is raised. One-part good marketing and one-part better story-telling of the oyster’s origin. In the last few years, Louisiana and our sister Gulf states have gotten into the game, raising oysters through a process called off-bottom aquaculture. Aquaculture oysters have distinctive flavor profiles based on the environment in which they’re raised.
On a constant mission to find the best local products, Dickie Brennan and his team source aquaculture oysters from local Gulf oyster farmers. Bourbon House has a regular rotation, as does the new oyster bar at Tableau. Tableau’s oyster bar, located directly off scenic Jackson Square, exclusively offers only these premium Gulf oysters. They typically have a daily rotation of at least three varieties ranging from Grand Isle’s Murder Points to Alabama’s Isle Dauphine. Tableau’s oyster expert/shucker, Jeff Spoo walks guests through the oysters’ flavor nuances, which can vary dramatically based on the variety. Small eye-droppers containing chef-driven sauces like house-made ponzu and cane vinegar mignonette accompany the oysters along with freshly baked crackers. The concept that oysters are a delicacy meant to be appreciated and savored is embraced at Tableau. It doesn’t hurt that the restaurant’s beautiful courtyard is adjacent to the Oyster Bar through large, French doors, making outdoor oyster dining easy and enjoyable.
Like everything, change is constant, but if the world is our oyster, Gulf oysters are opening up new possibilities that are more delicious than ever.
Bourbon House is open daily from 7am, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. www.bourbonhouse.com for more information.
Tableau’s oyster bar is open daily from 11am. Tableau serves brunch and dinner daily. www.tableaufrenchquarter.com