Shell Game

Oysters reach their pinnacle of haute cuisine at Antoine’s, creators of oysters
Rockefeller.
– Photo: Eugenia Uhl

Oysters are, like New Orleanians, products of their environment. It may surprise some to learn that our esteemed local oyster, Crassostrea virginica, is biologically the same creature as those raised in Yankee territory. However, the warmer water and nutrient-rich estuaries of southeastern Louisiana make for a larger, plumper oyster that grows much faster than its northern kin. “We just have juicy, full-flavored oysters down here,” says chef Kevin Vizard of Vizard’s on the Avenue. “There is no better oyster for frying.”

Oysters are also a delicacy that spans the socioeconomic spectrum with ease. The oyster used in a blue-collar poor-boy is the same one, which ascends to the most rarified menus of the city. Oysters reach their pinnacle of haute cuisine at Antoine’s, creators of oysters Rockefeller. The proprietary recipe is so well guarded that it is the lesser, pale imitations made with common spinach that most people seem to associate with the dish, rather than the haunting, unquantifiable dressing of greens and herbs of the original.

The Charbroiled Oysters at Drago’s restaurant. – photo: Cheryl Gerber

Drago’s in Metairie lays claim to another signature preparation: charbroiled oysters. Served on the half-shell, the cooking reduces their liquor to a rich broth perfect for sopping up with French bread, and the dusting of Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs provide just the right amount of sharpness and tang. Add the smokiness from the grill, and you have an addictive treat. Drago’s also offers an oyster spinach soup. Loaded up with a “medley of cheeses” to a point at which an inserted spoon almost stands quivering up on its own makes tackling the dish kind of like eating a bowl of dip. This is to say, it is heart-stoppingly delicious. If you can find a place to park and don’t mind a little waiting around, Drago’s is well worth the trip.

Back Uptown at Vizard’s on the Avenue, chef Vizard features a creative oyster appetizer. “We put fried oysters on top of a foie gras ‘bruschetta’
with an oyster demi-glace,” he explains. Vizard uses only P&J Oyster Company oysters in his restaurant. Founded in New Orleans in 1876, P&J maintains its own oyster beds and is stringent about the quality of its product. “With a company like that, you can be assured that you’ve got a good, safe oyster,” says Vizard. For a main course, he includes oysters in a supplementary role with his potato-crusted fish with apple-smoked bacon, oysters and thyme. Look for more oysters to grace the menu going into late fall as the weather cools.

P&J oysters play a big role at Pascal’s Manale as well. A local neighborhood institution, Manale first opened in 1913. Following an extensive renovation after Katrina, it reopened in early March. For their cooked oyster dishes, Manale offers up their combination pan roast along with oysters Bienville. “In the pan roast, a dressing with oysters, shrimp and crabmeat is laid atop a bed of poached oysters, baked, and served in a casserole dish,” says chef-owner Mark DeFelice. “In oysters Bienville, bacon, mushrooms and shrimp are cooked into a dressing then piped atop poached half-shell oysters and finished in the oven.”

However, most patrons enjoy oysters best raw and on the half-shell at the wonderful oyster bar. Many locals doubtless have fond memories of family meals at Manale, and scooting into the bar area with a fistful of quarters to play the table-top Pac-Man machine while surrounded by a crowd of adults, laughing and drinking in the standing-room only scene at the bar. The oyster bar remains a big draw, says DeFelice. “We have regulars who come in every Friday and Saturday just to have oysters.”

Down in the French Quarter at the Royal Sonesta, executive chef Joe Maynard guides Begue’s through its seasonal menu change. Like many others, he uses only Gulf oysters and buys from P&J. “I use Gulf oysters year round,” Maynard says. “That adage about ‘months with r’s…’ is a complete lie. Oysters are wonderful in April and March, and they are just as good as in June and July as any other time.”

Maynard features oysters in his signature appetizer oysters Begue’s. “It is fried oysters atop creamed leeks topped with shaved parmesan. The oysters are done with a parmesan-garlic crust, and we use Panko breadcrumbs,” he says.

One Restaurant and Lounge in the Riverbend also uses oysters in a great appetizer: their char-grilled oysters with Roquefort cheese and red-wine vinaigrette. The acidity of the vinaigrette does a lot to balance the dish, slicing through the richness of the cheese and tying it in nicely with the delicacy of the oyster.

In Metairie, chef Andrea, owner of Andrea’s restaurant, fell in love with New Orleans when he came here 30 years ago. “Not just the history,” he says, “but also the food. I was impressed with all the wonderful, fresh seafood.”

Andrea has incorporated oysters into his menu in myriad ways. His oysters en brochette showcases oysters wrapped with leeks and bacon, grilled and served with a white wine and lemon cream. “That is one of my guests’ favorite appetizers,” he says. Oysters Radosta is another pleaser. “I named it after one of my close friends and finest customers,” Andrea adds.

Business has been good for Andrea since the storm. “I was lucky because I never left the city. I stayed here in my building, took all the food out of the walk-in coolers and cleaned up the place. My friends came together to help me serve when I reopened on September 17 of last year. It’s very special to receive the support of the community; to hear them say that they appreciate what you have done.”

There are not many cities in the U.S. where a person can feel comfortable ordering fried oysters at a gas station like we can here at Danny and Clyde’s. It just goes to show that in New Orleans, great food infuses the fabric of our city like no place else.