When I visited New Orleans for the first time last year, I was completely blown away by the oystering history and culinary traditions of Louisiana. New Orleanians take oyster love to a whole new level, and amazingly, it’s been only getting better. Enter: Curious Oyster Co, a brilliant new raw bar in St. Roch Market.
Late last month, I had the opportunity to revisit New Orleans and speak at the Sustainable Seafood Blog Conference (which I’ll write more about later). I decided to arrive a few days early to explore.
The Curious Oyster Company is one of the founding vendors housed in the newly revitalized St. Roch Market in the Bywater District. The 6,800 square-foot food hall reopened in April 2015 with 13 individual vendors representing a diverse spectrum of coastal and local foods. It took a long time to turn this concept into a reality, and Melissa Martin and Effie Michot, the co-founders of Mosquito Supper Club, knew that they wanted to be part St. Roch’s historic comeback. Melissa’s grandfather was an oysterman and opening an oyster bar was something that she’s always wanted to do.
The Revival of St. Roch Market
St. Roch Market was originally built in 1875 as an open-air food market. It underwent several ups and downs before being abandoned after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The building received a $3.7 million gut renovation in 2012 and the master lease was awarded to Bayou Secret, an entrepreneurial group with a hopeful vision for the space and the community it serves. “After several months working with the neighborhoods, we’ve formulated a plan to create an entrepreneurial hub for community development, provide affordable food options, and educational resources for the St. Roch community.” (source: Nola.com)
Upon arriving to Louis Armstrong International Airport, I rented a car* and made a beeline for this exciting new food destination.
As I walked into the market, I was immediately greeted by a vibrant array of crisp, local produce, aromatic cheeses, and meats. I peer upwards and took in the openness of the space — the sky-high ceilings, bright white columns, and exquisite marble countertops imparted a heavenly aura. After meandering past the different stalls showcasing charcuterie, pastries and artisanal sodas, I eventually arrived in front of the intimate six-seat raw bar. Their lovely hand-illustrated logo hung prominently on the back wall. The whimsical “The Curious Oyster Co” lettering was paired with a voluptuous Aphrodite perched atop a scallop shell, who was looking on with a hungry gleam in her eye.
Co-owner Melissa Martin and Mosquito Supper Club-alum Ellis were busy prepping for the lunch crowd. I had commented on their Instagram just hours earlier about visiting, but I don’t think either of them had any idea that I would literally pop up on a random Wednesday afternoon. Surprise! Nor were they expecting a photography crew from Southern Living Magazine to drop by at the same time to shoot. Double surprise! Our joint presence transformed the photogenic oyster stall into food-paparazzi central for a couple of hours.
The 33 Oyster Club
I introduced myself and my eye was immediately drawn to the line of 33 Oysters on the Half Shell books clipped to a line using clothespins. Over half of the pocket books had names scribbled prominently over the covers. This got me really excited for a few reasons: 1) Curious Oyster Co recently started a 33 Oysters Club, which offers guests an opportunity to sample 33 different oysters for $50 plus a keepsake tasting journal and 2) they are the first raw bar that decided to use my new 33 Oysters journal as their official oyster passport. Hooray! It’s kind of surreal seeing a tangible object that you helped create being used out in the real world.
It’s All Good
The one-sheet menu consisted of five distinct sections: oysters, soup, snacks, salads, and a smoked fish plate. Frankly, everything looked so good that expert recommendations were much needed. Ellis suggested the poached shrimp in olive oil, cracked crab claws, and the boquerone salad, all of which I absolutely had to said yes to. I also ordered four local Louisiana oysters along with a couple other East Coast and West Coast options. This was a pretty ambitious lunch for one, but it’s not everyday that I’m in New Orleans!
As I waited for the feast to commence, Melissa sent over a sneak preview of the locally caught and poached shrimp. The tangy, crisp onion, salty capers, and herbs on the shrimps were amazing. Serious wow moment. This dish was at once refreshing and satiating. It really hit the spot — I couldn’t stop eating them. The full-sized snack contained enough shrimp to share amongst a party of two or three (I’d estimate like 10-12 pieces in total?), but I would have a hard time keeping to my fair share.
The cracked crab claws arrived next. Again, the serving size was generous enough to satisfy a small group… buuut I would rather just order one for myself. Each petite chilled claw contained a firm nugget of sweet and spicy crab meat. The marinade — a mixture using Steen’s Cane Vinegar — was sublime. This open-clawed crab snack felt like a novelty, but I learned that it’s actually quite popular in the gulf. Two other well-reputed restaurants that I visited on this trip featured the same thing, but I’ve concluded that Curious Oyster Co delivers the best version, hands down.
The last non-oyster dish to arrive was a colorful boquerone salad garnished with salt cured yolk shavings. Umami bomb central. The fresh bibb lettuce, radish, tomato and parmesan really helped support the intensity of the vinegar-laced anchovies and egg. Balancing acidity and savoriness is something that the Curious Oyster Co has really mastered. I’m not sure why cured yolks aren’t grated over dishes more often, but it’s got me thinking about how to up my congee game moving forward…
OH. Last, but not least (before we get to the oysters), I need to talk about the house butter. It’s not just like any butter. It’s cane syrup-infused butter. Which means it’s like where-have-you-been-all-my-life butter. Steen’s Cane Syrup is a renowned southern cuisine staple, but this was the first time that I’ve ever encountered it. Mixing it into a high quality French Beurre de Baratte is guaranteed to please. I definitely ate too much of it. Way too much.
A Curious Oyster Tasting
Finally, let’s talk about their oyster game. That’s what I came for, after all. Curious Oyster Co typically features around nine different oyster varieties from the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf Coasts. On the day when I arrived, they had four. Limited variety and distribution options are two challenges that the team faces on a regular basis, which is a shame because it kind of prevents them from truly living out their namesake. Curiosity and adventure is what this restaurant and the entire market is about. I’m confident that more oyster options will open up to them in the future.
Ellis isn’t usually the one behind the raw bar, but I suppose it was my lucky day. Using the traditional long-bladed oyster knife and oyster holder, he was able to pop a dozen open in no time. The shucking was pretty impressive. No grit or gashed bellies. No flipping either.
St. Bernard (LA Area 3) from Captain Johnny Smith
Salinity: 1 | Sweetness: 3 | Complexity: 2 | Size: 3-4 inch
For local oysters, they were surprisingly petite. Normally, these local oysters are 2-3 times as large! The salinity was very, very mild, but the meat had a bright and buttery flavor. I’ve discovered that I personally don’t mind spawny oysters (up to a certain size), and these were just around that border.
Baynes Sound from British Columbia
Salinity: 5 | Sweetness: 5 | Complexity: 4 | Size: 3-4 inch
It’s unfortunately difficult to know for sure where these oysters came from, but wherever they’re from, mother nature (and the grower) did a great job. The supple, fleshy meat had just the right amount of chewiness and potency. The bold herbaceous, seaweed flavors rolled across my palate like a fine broth, and it ended with an ultra sweet finish. After the first two, I had to order another two. Perhaps one of the best PNW oysters I’ve had in awhile! Melissa and Ellis seemed to agree.
James River from Virginia
Salinity: 1 | Sweetness: 2 | Complexity: 2 | Size: 3-4 inch
Meaty and mild, these oysters were comparable to the Louisiana St. Bernard’s. But as I revisited my tasting notes in my own personal 33 Oyster journal, I can tell you that they were more earthy, nutty than the Louisiana oysters, and possessed a much cleaner finish.
My visit to the Curious Oyster Co was completed by a surprise visit from 33 Oyster Club member and cocktail chef Abigail Gullo of SoBou! As a former, but secretly forever-NYC gal (I mean, her Twitter handle is @NYCBaby for goodness sakes), we hit it off immediately. Abigail gave me the scoop on where to go in NOLA and which BK bars to hit up.
All and all, this was the perfect way to start off any visit to New Orleans. The St. Roch Market has something for everyone, and especially if you’re a curious oyster lover. Just make sure to come hungry and you’ll leave happy. Sharing is optional.
Curious Oyster Co
St. Roch Market
2381 St Claude Avenue
New Orleans, LA 70117
*A word on car rentals…
Renting a car might not sound like a big deal to any of you, but it was a momentous occasion for me. Having dwelled in Manhattan for over nine years, I’ve become pretty accustomed taking public transportation, taxis and Ubers everywhere. Although I still hold an active driver’s license, my comfort zone was definitely confined to the back and passenger seats. Being forced to drive on my own, while navigating an unfamiliar city, was something that I had not done in over 5 years. Thankfully, Google Maps and my muscle memory performed surprisingly well. I only ran one red light, unintentionally of course.