The first oyster trip of the year: Boston. This town has one heck of an oyster scene! But with just six hours to spare, I managed to only visit the top four on my list. Here are the findings from my short, yet fruitful trip.
12:30PM at Row34
After spending a relaxing weekend catching up with old college buddies, it was time to switch gears. Kahren Dowcett from Living Arts Institute and I drove down to Row34 (a new restaurant in Fort Point from the Island Creek crew) for a light oyster lunch. It was drizzly and cold, but we fortunately found street parking a block away.
Despite being self-described as a “workingman’s oyster bar,” Row34 was unexpectedly bright and polished. I guess I had imagined a smaller, darker oyster saloon instead of an open, industrial loft fit for a tech startup. But playing true to the no-nonsense descriptor, the usual sea-themed frivolities were no where to be seen. Only essential information were on display. Nothing more, nothing less. I liked that.
Darren served us at the bar, just to the right of the mountainous display of oysters over crushed ice. The restaurant was rather mellow today for lunch. Apparently ICO had their holiday party here last night. There were no traces of debauchery anywhere, but I suspect a few were probably recovering from festivities. The simple “R34″ raw bar ordering card listed a selection of five local oysters, all harvested from Massachusetts. Three were brand new to me. All of the oysters were priced between $2-3 per piece, so we sampled the lot: Row34 from Duxbury, Island Creeks from Duxbury, Howlands Landing from Duxbury, Rocky Nook from Kingston, and Spring Creek from Barnstable.
When our plate of 20 arrived, they glistened. Superbly fresh, all very meaty, immaculately shucked. Accoutrements included cocktail sauce with a side of horseradish (passed), classic mignonette (passed), and a special spicy mignonette (tried once, didn’t quite do it for me.)
The Row 34 Oyster Experiment: Row 34 got their name from their location. They’re grown on the 34th row of the Island Creek Oyster Farm plot, right next to its other acreages of brothers and sisters. However, unlike standard ICO’s that mature on the Duxbury Bay floor, Row 34 oysters are grown out in floating cages. Penthouse suites. They’re occasionally tumbled and tousled, but generally live a pampered life. Did this treatment impact its taste or texture? According to Boston Magazine, it certainly did.
Having tried both Row34′s and regular Island Creek’s consecutively, I thought I detected subtle differences. The liquor from the Row 34′s tasted a bit cleaner, yet brinier. Whereas the Island Creek’s possessed a depth that I often find in bottom-cultured oysters. But then again, I’m not positive whether or not it was an apples-to-apples comparison. One could have been pulled from the water at a different time, a different age.
I can’t wait to talk about the other oysters that I had, but I’m going to save it for another post where I plan to round up my full list of Boston oyster discoveries. I will say that I enjoyed the Duxbury trio flight. It was fascinating to compare and contrast oysters that were all grown in one microregion. We also had a few other bites before we had to go, including the Spicy Lobster Taco’s (great lobster and “salsa,” but not very spicy), and a delicious plate of lime-sprinkled salmon crudo (compliments of the chef). Overall, I had a terrific first experience at Row34. The service was wonderful, timing was perfect, oysters were well shucked, plated, and clearly explained. I’m definitely returning for another round and hope to also check out the original Island Creek Oyster Bar as well.
2:00PM at B&G Oysters
The next stop was B&G Oysters in the South End. We had amazing parking karma again. A spot opened up right in front of the restaurant. (Seriously, is this normal?) We entered through the back door, past the iron gate with the charming “Bivalves” sign. The rain had stopped and everything seemed to feel right.
Before entering the main restaurant, I caught a glimpse of the outdoor seating area. The small courtyard was flanked on one side by a wall of ivy. I imagined myself having a lazy and luxurious summer night out there with a plate of bivalves and a chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc. The inside of B&G is quite charming. The open kitchen was at the center of everything. There were no barriers between the customer and the prep counters. It felt like being in the front row of Kitchen Stadium in Iron Chef, except without the camera crew, competitive heat or annoying voice timer.
When 2:30PM rolled around, we were the only patrons left in the restaurant. Nothing was going on except carrot prep and clean up. Our waiter walked over to take our order. I selected half a dozen oysters from a menu that featured 10 East Coast varieties. There were three from Massachusetts — two of which I hadn’t tried before. Oysters were priced between $2.50 to $4.10 per piece ($4.10 for the Basket Island, Maine). Chilmark from Martha’s Vineyard and Nasketucket from Nasketucket Bay were my two MA choices. I also decided to retry the Umami from Rhode Island just for the hell of it. I also ordered the Lobster Veloute, which looked absolutely divine.
Annnnd that’s all that I’m going to report for now.
Wait, what? Why? To be fully transparent, my experience wasn’t great. Several things were off. But it felt surprisingly off — like someone was accidentally dozing, instead of obstinately bombing. Because I had heard so many good things from so many people about B&G, I felt like my situation was out of the norm. Anyway, before jumping to any conclusions, I really want to give B&G another shot. So this report is TO BE CONTINUED…. duhn duhn DUHN. Onwards.
3:30PM at Neptune Oyster
Neptune Oyster in the historic North End is notorious for its ridiculously long wait times — yes, it’s that tiny and has a reputation of being that awesome — so I strategically scheduled this visit during the least busy time of day that I could think of. My plan worked. The narrow New York City-sized oyster boutique accommodated us four gals quite easily at the back of the bar. Connie Lu from Pangea Shellfish and my college buddy Kacy came out to meet us. Although if it were just me, I would’ve chosen to sit at the front of the restaurant, facing the giant window looking out onto the hypothetical line of envious patrons-in-waiting.
Neptune featured 12 oysters on their menu, with 10 from the East Coast and two from the West Coast, priced between $2.60 to $3.10 per piece ($3.10 for the Kusshi from British Columbia). As a contrast to Row 34 and B&G, the raw menu/ordering sheet at Neptune felt quite exhaustive. Each variety came with a description that summarized the oyster’s general size, level of salinity, notable flavors, and finish. Somebody likes spreadsheets! I ordered Moon Shoals from Barnstable, Basket Island from Casco Bay, and Bee’s River from Eastham.
Even though I wasn’t all that hungry, I had to try the Neptunes on Piggyback: a composition of crispy fried oysters between a base layer of sweet Berkshire pork and top layer of greens with a golden raisin confiture and pistachio aioli. The small plate was both hearty and light at the same time. Quite the delight. The service was a little inconsistent throughout the visit. We were initially well looked after when the place was calm, but attention dwindled near the end when the entire restaurant filled up (as anticipated). I suppose that’s a normal occurrence, so be prepared to wave the waiters down instead of waiting for them to come to you. I’d love to return sometime either on my own or on a date.
5:00PM at Mare Oyster Bar
Kacy and I ventured on to the last oyster bar. Mare was about three blocks away from Neptune and used a very similar raw bar ordering card. The ambiance was quite different from all the rest. Floor to ceiling windows hugged half of the corner bistro, which I’m sure brought in amazing light during the day. Fellow oyster enthusiast and creator of the Oyster Century Club Jacqueline Church also came out to meet us for my last round of slurps. At this point, I was a little bit, tiny bit, teensy bit oystered out. My wallet couldn’t have agreed with me more. However, with 15 oyster varieties on Mare’s menu, they boasted the largest selection out of the four establishments on my tour. They carried all East Coast varieties and many were brand new to me. My stomach rallied.
I scanned the list for viable options. We ordered a platter of Stony Islands from Orleans, First Encounters from Eastham, and Ichabods from Plymouth.
First Encounter vs First Light: Although First Encounter Oysters, presumably grown near the First Encounter Marsh at Bee’s River in Eastham aren’t at all the same as the First Light Oysters grown by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Popponesset Bay, Mare kind of confused me by putting up a different label up than what was listed on the menu. From my understanding, they’ve served First Lights before, so either the sign was wrong or the menu was wrong. I wish I had a better comparison of the Bee’s Rivers from Neptune and these First Encounters.
I couple drinks and many laughs later, we noticed the time. I had to run soon to catch my ride back to New York City. I thought it wise to order something for the road. The Lobster Roll that boasted meat from a 2.5lb lobster for $25 looked sufficiently extravagant for a “on the go” meal. Mare offered both hot and cold preparation. I opted for the cold — Maine style. It was the Best. Decision. Ever. A few hours into my journey home, I decided it was time for a 5th meal. That lobster roll was phenomenal. The buttered bun was stuffed to the brim with lusciously sweet meat and garnished with tangy pickled onion slivers. If not for the great oysters, I would be happy to return to Mare for this puppy.
Tips for Your Own Boston Oyster Bar Crawl
- Start with a light oyster lunch. Make sure to fill your stomach with a little something besides oysters, but remember to pace yourself. Don’t fill up. Drink lots of water. Take a small break after eating to explore the city, and return to location #2 around 3PM.
- Take photos of all the menus (or ask to keep them, if possible) and make note of which oysters you try. Order them by harvest location. If you happen to find oysters from the same microregion (i.e., Wellfleet, Eastham, Duxbury), you’ll be able to compare those flavors more easily.
- Sit at the oyster bar wherever possible. Engage the staff, talk to them about the oysters. They should be plenty knowledgeable about their offerings and willing to help (as long as it’s not insanely busy where you can’t expect anyone to linger for long). If they don’t seem informed or try to hunt down the information for you, think twice about returning.
- 3PM on a weekday (particularly Monday) is going to be your best bet of getting a seat at Neptune without waiting.
- Take photos of your plate of oysters before you slurp them. They’ll usually come in order of how they’re listed on the menu. Sometimes when you can’t recall a name, you’ll at least remember its position on the platter.
I’ll be posting another entry about the new oyster discoveries that I had along the way. I’m also coming back for more in mid-March (and attending the Boston Seafood Expo).
Virgola in Italian means comma, or a pause, which is literally what this cozy oyster and wine bar feels like. The sultry, secluded, six-foot-wide converted alleyway serves as the perfect sanctuary for the first oyster interlude of the year.
It’s noon on New Year’s Day and I’m out on my first order of business of the year: a meeting with Joseph Marazzo, owner of Virgola, at his charming oyster & wine den in the West Village. It’s located at 28 Greenwich Avenue, but I think an address incorporating “½” would feel more appropriate.
Happy Holidays! As 2013 comes to a close, I thought it would be fun to look back and revisit some of my favorite oyster moments of this year. These were my top 10 most memorable slurps:
#10 Race Rock Oysters from Peconic Bay, NY at Cull & Pistol
Although I’ve heard of this phenomenon, it was the first time that I had ever encountered a greenish-blueish-gilled oyster. These Race Rocks from the Peconic Bay, Long Island were quite a novelty. The color comes from the algae they eat (sort of like how Flamingo’s turn pink when they eat pink shrimp). Flavor-wise, it tasted like Green Eggs and Ham. Just kidding. They were briny, buttery, and had a hint of minerality. Thanks Chef Dave Seigal for introducing me to them!
#9 Pleasure House Oysters from Lynnhaven River, VA
Oysters are a feast of the eyes as well as the tastebuds. If this isn’t oyster porn, I don’t know what is. Also rather appropriate for an oyster with such a scandalous-sounding name (although I assure you that the association is quite PG). These plump gems were fantastic. Ultra fresh, sweet and salty. I couldn’t get enough of them and neither could my coworkers. Pleasure House Oysters only harvests 1200 a week, so many thanks to grower/co-owner Chris Ludford for sending me a batch. Read the entry.
#8 Four species oyster tasting at New York Oyster Week
In my many years of oyster blogging, I’ve only come across the complete tasting of the 5 species of North America once. Kevin Joseph of New York Oyster Week almost managed to collect them all for his premiere Shuck Easy event. There was the o. edulis (European Flat/Belon), c. gigas (Pacific), c. virginica (Eastern Native) and c. sikamea (Kumamoto). The only one missing was the West Coast native: o. lurida (Olympia). They’re usually pretty hard to get on the East Coast though, so no biggie. While almost everyone else went for the Kumo’s, I had a field day with the Damariscotta Belons. They are probably the most underrated oyster out there.
#7 Kusshi from British Columbia with Crème fraîche & caviar at Oyster Nosh
Kusshi’s are already little nuggets of pure happiness. The name is so cute (it means “precious” in Japanese) and the shape kind of reminds you of a truffle. So at that rate, why not top it off with some ridiculous decadence? I learned this move from a restaurant up in Maine a few years ago, although they also doused theirs in vodka. Needless to say, these were amazing and everyone’s favorite. I hope I’ll be invited back to Niyati’s 2nd Annual Oyster Nosh next year ;) Read the entry.
#6 Stellar Bays from British Columbia at my engagement party
So speaking of the Kusshi, Stellar Bays are their bivalve 1-up. They are basically larger Kusshi’s (same deep cup), and are totally out of this world. Plump, sweet, crisp and clean… They were the perfect treat at our casual backyard engagement party. Friends still talk about them to this day! Many thanks to W&T Seafood for the hook up. Read the entry.
#5 New Jersey oysters at Sustainable Seafood Week NYC
At the Oysters, Clams & Cocktails Benefit during Sustainable Seafood Week NYC, I got to try four new varieties of New Jersey oysters. Who knew Jersey had such amazing oysters?? It’s not the first thing you think about, right? Well I was certainly blown away by the briny Mantoloking oyster from Forty North Oyster Farm, as well as the Graveling Point oyster from Maxwell Shellfish. Read the entry.
#4 New Zealand Oyster Tasting at Waterbar in San Francisco, CA
It’s not everyday you find a New Zealand oyster on an American menu, let alone three varieties. Before heading to Napa, we got a chance to check out Waterbar along the Embarcadero in SF. They had a special three New Zealand oyster tasting: Coromandel, Clevedon Coast, and Kaipara (brand new to me). Some of my favorite oysters are from Tasmania and these toothsome Kiwi bivalves could be a close second. Read the entry.
#3 Maine Oyster Tasting at Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland, ME
I’m kind of obsessed with Maine oysters… and Maine in general for that matter (getting married there in May!) So when we had the chance to visit Eventide, I was like a kid going to Disneyland. Then I got even more pumped about being able to explore five different Maine oysters in one go (Eventide had at least 7 or 8 varieties on the menu). We arrived at the oyster bar in the nick of time — this place fills up insanely quick in the afternoon. The John’s Rivers and Pemaquids were some of the finest I’ve had on the East Coast. Happy sigh! Read the entry.
#2 Hog Island Sweetwaters at the Hog Island Oyster Farm in Marshall, CA
My oyster journey more or less began at the Hog Island Oyster Bar in SF’s Ferry Building back in 2009 and this year, I’ve come full circle by shucking my own oysters at the Hog Island Oyster Farm. There’s something about these Sweetwaters that’s life changing. Having them to the view of Tomales Bay also seals the deal. I have a silly (but potentially not too ridiculous) theory: where there’s good cattle grazing, there are good oysters. Maybe the nutrient-high run-off makes the oysters extra sweet. But if you take that thought one moo further… well, don’t think about it. Anyway, I don’t know why more people haven’t done the merroir & terroir tour out of San Francisco. Sonoma and Napa are literally a little over an hour away. It’s the perfect food-centric road trip. That’s a free business idea for someone. Read the entry.
#1 Kelly Galway Natives and Rock Oysters in Galway Bay, Ireland
The crème de la crème oyster experience of this year was my trip out to Ireland, where I had the amazing opportunity to visit several oyster farms on the West Coast of the country, as well as participate in the Galway International Oyster Festival.
There were so many fantastic moments that it’s hard to highlight them all. But if I really had to pinpoint one particular experience that topped it all, I’d have to say it was slurping live Pacific and European Native oysters right out of the water at the Kelly Galway Oyster Farm. We were in hunter green wellies, calf deep in a little crevice of Galway Bay, standing next to rows upon rows of oyster tressles. The sun was breaking through the clouds right around that time and it had cast a sparkly spotlight over bits and pieces of the bay. Ugh, I thought I was dreaming! It was a trip of a lifetime. Many thanks to Richard Donnelly for reaching out and setting these meetings up.
So that concludes the countdown! Here’s to 2014 and all the new oyster adventures that it brings. What were some of your favorite oyster moments of 2013? And what are you looking forward to for next year? Leave a comment and slurp some oysters.
In the last few years, Brooklyn has established ownership in things that were once seemingly exclusive to Manhattan. Avant garde eateries, underground nightclubs, basketball teams… and now, BK has built its very own seafood mecca.
The Grand Central Oyster Bar has officially opened its forth franchise in Park Slope on 5th Avenue and Carroll Street. In case you’re curious, there’s also a Grand Central Oyster Bar in Tokyo and Newark Airport, Terminal C… of all places.
BKOB (my nickname for it) is just a few blocks from the Union Street subway station and walking distance from Grand Army Plaza. Although it’s quite accessible, the restaurant is still a good 50 minutes by subway from my own apartment on the Upper West Side.
But there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for a good oyster adventure! I managed to grab a sneak peek inside and “on the half shell,” a few hours before the restaurant’s opening night. The atmosphere was part zen, part chaos. All in all, an impressive evolution from the last time I was there in early November.
What I like about the BKOB is how modular and versatile the space is. There are three dining areas and each one has its own unique personality. The first room serves as an open kitchen and raw bar/retail shop. Patrons can choose to either sit in or takeout. The retail aspect is currently still in the works, but once it’s up and running, it will provide the neighborhood with some awesome new seafood options.
I was particularly drawn to the selection of 17 different oysters.
- Bluepoint (Long Island, NY) – $1.75
- Chef’s Creek (Washington) – $2.75
- Chincoteague (Virginia) – $2.45
- Duck Island Petite (Long Island, NY) – $2.35
- Fanny Bay (British Columbia) – $2.35
- Giga Cup Select (Washington) – $2.45
- Kusshi (British Columbia) – $2.95
- Madeleine (Prince Edward Island) – $2.45
- Malpeque (Prince Edward Island) – $2.35
- Malaspina (British Columbia) – $2.75
- Martha’s Vineyard (Massachusetts) – $2.35
- Mattaki (British Columbia) – $2.45
- Naked Cowboy (Long Island, NY) – $2.35
- Pemaquid (Maine) – $2.75
- Shigoku (British Columbia) – $2.75
- Shinnecock (Long Island, NY) – $2.65
- Totten Virginica (Washington) – $2.95
I sampled a dozen varieties, but unfortunately didn’t keep track of which was what. Frankly, it didn’t really matter at the time. They were all fresh and delicious, although I did recognize the signature flavor and appearance of the Kusshi, Totten Virginica, and Pemaquid. The platter presentation was more or less identical as the original GCOB’s. The shucking, albeit done in isolation for a photo shoot, was also impressive. I’d be curious to see how all of this goes again when the shuckers are slammed with orders.
On a separate note: I was pleasantly surprised to see a West Coast option for under $2.50 (Fanny Bay at $2.35).
The middle room gives a nod to GCOB’s lounge. It displays the same juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary furnishings. Gothamist did a comprehensive gallery of interior photos that are worth checking out. There’s a gorgeous cocktail bar towards the front, which I really liked for these photos. What you don’t see here is the fact that this area will be flanked on both sides by flat screen TV’s — so even when you’re slurping oysters and sipping on champagne, you can enjoy the game! (I predict that a lot of Valentine’s Day outings will happen here…)
Finally, the more formal dining area is set up to accommodate intimate dinners and larger parties. What caught my eye was this enormous chandelier hanging above the middle of the room. It looked like a wheel with several wooden boat models encircling it on the top. It had been brought over from the original GCOB, which I thought was a nice touch.
BKOB is currently serving a “light fare” aka appetizers and (my favorite) the New England Clam Chowder. No oyster pan roast yet, but I’m sure that will be coming on shortly. There are 10 beers on draft, all range between $7-$9.50. I was particularly excited to see the Brooklyn “Sorachi Ace” and Narragansett Lager on tap. For $11 you can also get a 4 beer sampler (5 oz glasses). Bottled beers range from $6-6.50 and feature your basics. The wine list currently features 15 whites and 2 reds, which I believe will also expand a bit in the near future.
So what’s the initial impression? I was pretty pleased by the raw bar selection and its quality. The mood is still waiting to be decided. I wonder what kind of music, what kind of service, and what kind of crowd will fill these walls. But as for the food, that’s also too soon to tell… I didn’t have any! Next time…
Like with any new restaurant, it will take a few weeks to massage out the kinks and grow into its own. But the “ship before you’re 100% ready” is such a cool and brave mentality. I’m just hoping that the Grand Central Oyster Bar Brooklyn will continue to rep the unmistakable vibe of its home borough: chill, intimate, and proud.
256 Fifth Avenue, Park Slope
It’s no Deadliest Catch, but oyster farming can be a risky business. You’re at the mercy of mother nature, and in a blink of an eye, everything can change. When Hurricane Sandy pummeled the Atlantic Seaboard last fall, Forty North Oyster Farm was among the many victims caught in the worst-hit area of New Jersey: Mantoloking. One year later, a group of us New York Oyster Lovers decided to trek down to the farm to see the recovery efforts for ourselves.
As Superstorm Sandy made its way up the Eastern coastline last October, Forty North Oyster Farm founder Matt Gregg and his crew raced to submerge the bags of oysters down into Barnegat Bay in effort to protect them from imminent wind and waves. Although they managed to hunker all of the oysters down in time, he couldn’t have planned for the chaos that ensued. The destructive path of the hurricane left everything in shambles. Entire houses were washed away. Bridges were broken in two. Boats were strewn and piled impossibly high on top of one another, including Matt’s. There was no way of salvaging his boat, and no way getting to the oysters in time to save them. Suffocated by the soft muddy sea floor, the majority (95%) of his first commercially-viable crop died.
Ok, this is a sad way to start a story, but I can assure you that it has a much happier ending.
Let’s rewind for a little bit.
Ever since Matt Gregg had began his studies in aquaculture and fisheries science at the University of Rhode Island, he had dreamt of starting his own oyster farm. Matt grew up at the Jersey Shore and obtained extensive seafood experience through working at fish markets and on fishing boats. When he finally got the opportunity to turn his vision into a reality, the market was just beginning to blossom with boutique oyster growers like himself. Knowing the importance of having a good brand, Matt picked “Forty North” for his farm name because it is serendipitously situated along the 40 degrees north latitude line. Well, close enough anyway.
This would be the 3rd oyster farm tour the New York Oyster Lovers has organized. The Blue Island Shellfish Farm tour from 2010 was the very first. Then we visited the Shellfisher Reserve and Widow’s Hole in 2011. I also visited Sweet Neck Farm with one other friend in 2012, without the group, but it happens to be one of my favorites.
After driving for about an hour and a half drive from Manhattan, we arrived in Mantoloking (the land of beautiful sunsets). Before this, I had never been to the Jersey Shore. But even as a newcomer, I could tell something was amiss. Million dollar homes along the beach were all going through various stages of reconstruction. Some of the beach front lots remained awkwardly empty. We parked at a small dockyard that overlooked Barnegat Bay. Almost everything here looked more-or-less “normal,” but we could tell that there were still bits and pieces of abandoned boating equipment left unaccounted for.
Our group was approached by three young individuals — about my age — all wearing bright orange waist-high waders. I had met Matt and his college buddy and partner, Scott Lennox, before at Sustainable Seafood Week, and again at the Wine & Food Festival Oyster Bash. This was the first time they really looked like farmers though. Scott’s wife, Serafina, was also helping out with the tour today.
We went around and did a quick introduction by the docks, but the plan wasn’t to hang around here all day. Scott and Serafina took the (new) boat out onto the water and asked the rest of us to rendezvous with them by a secluded lagoon about a mile or two away. Matt followed our group and served as our guide.
In order to reach our oyster picnic, we had to hike…awhile. Over the hills and through the woods, under fallen trees and past crazy big spider webs. Other than the occasional wooden plank walkway, there was little sign of Sandy’s aftermath in the nature preserve. Nature has a pretty good recovery system. The autumn leaves just passed their prime, but vibrant flecks of red, orange, and yellows could still be spotted between the brown branches.
Fifty or twenty minutes later, we came to this beautiful clearing. This narrow lagoon was flanked by a impenetrable wall of trees, marshland, and firm sandy beaches. I’m not 100% sure, but I believe we were strolling through a northern part of the Edwin B. Forsyth National Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge protects over 47,000 acres of New Jersey coastal habitats which is actively managed for migratory birds. The refuge’s location in one of the Atlantic Flyway’s most active flight paths makes it an important link in seasonal bird migration. Flocks of Canadian geese flew overhead now and again. We even spotted a couple Osprey nests close to the farm.
Can you imagine that a year ago, this narrow waterway was packed with marooned boats?
Scott and Serafina were ready to rock and roll as soon as we got there. The couple are both part-time oyster farmers and full-time teachers for the International High School at LaGuardia Community College. Right now one of their biggest commitments to this business is taking time to make the commute. Having to trek all the way from Queens, NY to Mantoloking, NJ on a regular basis is no small task.
As we all approached the picnic table, I noticed an array of shucking knives. The most distinctive one was this rugged, Game of Thrones-like twisted blade. Upon further examination, I recognized it as the handiwork of Carolina Shuckers. “We got it as a wedding gift,” explained Scott. These custom shucking knives make quite the gift! Might have to drop that on my own registry somehow.
We knew that the oysters we would be slurping today were very special, but didn’t know just how special. They were part of the few that actually survived Sandy. Although they didn’t look very pretty, they were still perfectly good to eat… assuming you had the skill to open them up. Living out long, unsupervised days in the water had essentially turned this batch rogue. Full of resistance, yet still unexpectedly brittle at times, the shells proved to be a shucker’s ultimate test. We all had to use quite a bit of force and patience to pop them open.
I think I shucked about half a dozen myself and then began to mooch off of other members who were far more into the challenge.
Alongside the oysters, the Forty North gang also brought an interesting treat for us. Out of a little bucket, Matt pulled out a tiny, chubby critter. It was a little brown mud crab! Despite their cuteness, mud crabs are unapologetic squatters. They like to snuggle into oyster bags, which could pose a threat to baby oysters.
Being the resourceful bunch, they’ve decided to try and make use of the uninvited houseguests. Solution: charge rent. Rent = uh, you crab. In a pan. Fried up with a little Creole seasoning and some sesame seeds. Oh my gosh, what a PHENOMENAL snack. I could snack on these babies all day, every day. They were crispy, salty, crabby, and had a little heat. Really addicting stuff.
I had the perfect name for them too. Crab Crack. I jokingly said that if they ever decided to use this name, my royalty fee would be free Crab Crack for-ev-er. Well, that’s me half joking, and my gluttony being half being serious.
While the picnic was in full swing, Matt took four of us out at a time on his boat to check out the farm.
There are three families growing shellfish out on the Atlantic in all of New Jersey. Forty North is the youngest and most northernly-based of the farms. Anyone who has farmed oysters know that it’s an incredibly labor intensive process. Forty North is no exception, and perhaps even more so than others. Matt currently floats his bags of oysters on long lines, with each line several dozen yards away from one another. This format is quite a bit different than the rack and bag systems used by South Jersey growers. Although the upkeep is a more work, the oysters grow faster because they’re closer to the surface of the water — where the nutrients are. Plus, the sunlight helps keep the shells clean and parasite-free.
As a further precaution, mature oysters are dipped in a salt bath for up to 5 minutes to sterilize the exterior. This is only intended to kill off hitchhikers that might be living on or around the shell. I learned that this isn’t the same as giving the oysters a “salt finish,” which is a process that several growers now do in effort to increase the brininess of their product.
Matt hand grades the oysters three to four times a month and estimates that he can produce a retail-ready oyster far faster than other growers — taking about a year or so.
We pulled up one of the floating bags to examine the goods more closely. Although the bag wasn’t big, Matt estimated that it contained one thousand juvenile oysters. A side project that he hopes to expand next year is growing Gracilaria, a type of edible red algae that oysters love to eat. People do as well and you might occasionally run into at Japanese restaurants. Tasty and beneficial to the oysters, it would be a smart investment to ensure the best future for the business and environment.
For the rest of the afternoon, our group lounged around the beach and shucked more oysters. The Sandy Survivors that we had were quite briny and bold. The icy liquor went down like an aqua shot. Full of vibrant minerality and fruitiness.
Over the course of a few hours, shucking newbies turned into pro’s. One of us even managed to break two oyster knives, no doubt because of having unintentional superhuman strength. Note: It wasn’t the Game of Thrones one.
What’s next for Forty North? Matt recently announced a partnership with Chris Cannon, owner of Morristown’s Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen (scheduled to open April 2014), and is set to supply the new restaurant with his signature Forty North Mantoloking oysters next spring. Although I’m always up for a weekend trip to Morristown to visit friends, I hope that Manhattan will get its own supply… hint, hint.
Forty North is such a cool, masculine brand that they will have no trouble getting more business. Although operations are limited now, Matt has plans to construct a floating workstation to streamline workflow. He’ll be able to grade and tumble the oysters right at the source. Deeper, tumbled cups = more meat, more texture, more yumminess!
The last photo is of Matt’s “I’m not a playa’, I just shuck a lot” pose — which also happens to be the “tagline” on their cozy-looking hoodie.