Still high from the Grand Central Oyster Bar dinner, I was pretty giddy for my interview with Executive Chef Sandy Ingber. We sat down in the lounge for over an hour and a half (!) to talk about oysters, eat oysters, and discuss his new Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant Cookbook. Sandy started out at Grand Central Oyster Bar in 1990 as a buyer, made chef in six years, and has been ruling the seafood world ever since. Despite his notoriety, Sandy still wakes up every morning at 3AM and drives 35 minutes to the Bronx fish market to buy the day’s supply. #LikeABoss
Tomales Bay has been on my Oyster Destinations to Visit list for as long as I can remember. Wine Country and Oyster Country make the perfect one-two punch for any food-venturer. Our jaunt through Napa and Tomales Bay earlier this fall was one that more oyster lovers should take advantage of.
November 20th marked my four year anniversary as an aspiring ostreaphile. I have digital proof of my quest! Time certainly flies. Ever since I experienced my very first Hog Island Sweetwater at the Hog Island Oyster Bar in the Ferry Building back in 2009, I had been curious about exploring Tomales Bay and its hidden treasures. So when B and I made plans to hit up Napa for a weekend of wine and unwinding, it was a no brainer to also drive out to see California’s most picturesque oyster land for myself.
First, we spent some time with B’s old college buddies at an amazing house near Groth Vineyards. “Napafest,” the weekend-long occasion coined by those in attendance turned out to be quite the party. Everyone brought a little something to enhance the group’s enjoyment. My contribution? Six dozen Hog Island Sweetwater oysters. The Hog Island Oyster Bar at the Oxbow Public Market in Napa allow customers to place orders for unshucked oysters for take-away consumption, if you do it a day or two in advance. The extra small Sweetwaters were perfect for on the half shell slurping. At just $1 a piece, they were a steal. I even taught a couple of guys how to shuck oysters by the pool.
Once we had our fill of Chardonnay grapes and BBQ, we packed up our stuff and headed west. The drive from Napa to Tomales Bay took about an hour and 20 minutes. We drove past expansive camel-colored hills, scattered livestock posses, and bucolic ranches. The closer we were to the water, the greener the scenery became. Suddenly, we found ourselves on high ground and in front of this gorgeous view.
California State Route 1 will take you by many of the state’s most iconic oyster destinations. The California Department of Fish and Game leases a small portion of Tomales Bay’s water acreage to five aquaculture companies. Hog Island Oyster Company and Tomales Bay Oyster Company are the largest ones, and also allow public visitors. There is also another farm worth pointing out near the bay and that is the ever-resilient Drake’s Bay Oyster Company. But since we only had a few hours to spend, we decided to make the most of it at Hog Island Oyster Farm and The Marshall Store.
The Hog Island Oyster Farm has been growing oysters and shellfish for over 30 years now. It’s not the oldest around, nor the biggest, nor do they do things all that much differently than other farms. What makes Hog Island Oyster Farm different from most others out there is their remarkable “farm-to-table” experience, if you will. The farm has been open to the public since 1986. Oyster lovers have the opportunity to drop by, pick up fresh shellfish to go, or sit down to enjoy a little oyster picnic by the bay.
Not exactly knowing what to expect, I reserved a picnic table through the Hog Island website prior to our visit and came prepared with my own oyster shucking gear. If you are in need of a knife and glove, the farm has a bunch to lend or sell. The picnic area is separated into two tiers. The top tier consists of several umbrella-topped picnic tables that are dedicated for patrons of their oyster bar, “The Boat.” The bottom tier consists of maybe six or seven picnic tables reserved for “suck for yourself” service and grill access. If you just want to drop by for a few dozen on the go, don’t bother reserving a table. But if you want to turn it into an all out party, like these oyster-loving Instagrammers, then definitely book your crew a table!
We ordered a couple dozen Hog Island Sweetwaters, a dozen Kumamotos, and a bag of manila clams to shuck ourselves. But before we really dug in, we got to tour the operations with oyster farm veteran George Curth. When George isn’t explaining importance of the bag tags and water sampling to curious customers, he’s managing the farmers market operations. The oyster farm tour is a rather new operation for the farm, but it’s one that I wholeheartedly approve.
For example, I learned that the farm works in close cooperation with the local government to monitor water quality. Mussels grown in the bay are sampled every week to test for pollutants. If results detect something off, harvesting halts until the situation resolves itself. A lot of people ask me if I have ever gotten sick from eating oysters. To this day, I haven’t experienced a bad oyster yet (knock on wood). I don’t think it’s quite as common as people may think it is (you are much more likely to get sick from your undercooked hamburger or unwashed lettuce), but at the same time, I really believe that you have to be careful. Know where your oysters are from and buy from reliable sources.
The more people know, the better we off we all will be.
After the tour, we sat down and got back to business. It was time for a delicious sampling of raw and grilled oysters. The Hog Island Farm Style Grilled Sweetwaters with Garlic Chipotle Butter were fantastic. They have just the perfect amount of tanginess smokiness, and heat. Thankfully, the guys posted their recipe online. Here’s an excerpt from the experts:
Hog Island Farm Style Grilled Sweetwaters with Garlic Chipotle Butter
- 50 Hog Island sweet water Oysters
- 1/2 lb (two sticks) unsalted butter softened to room temp
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 cup bourbon
- 3/4 cup finely chopped garlic
- Half of (10 oz) can of chipotle chilies in adobo sauce, chopped
The Butter (can be made up to one week in advance, keep refrigerated)
In a medium bowl, dissolve the brown sugar with the bourbon. In a food processor or blender, combine the softened butter with the bourbon/brown sugar mixture and add the garlic and chipotles. Mix on medium/high speed until well blended (OK if some chunks remain). Lay down a sheet of parchment paper (12″ or so), scoop the butter compound onto the sheet working to form a long row. Roll the butter in the parchment, like a burrito, folding the ends as you go. Refrigerate for about two hours or until firm. The finished roll should be the dimension of a cube of butter, only longer (about a foot). When you are ready to grill, slice 1/8″ pats of butter from the butter log and place on top of your shucked, raw oysters. Allowing the butter to melt as the oysters cook. *You can also skip the log-roll and leave the butter in a airtight covered bowl (refrigerate after making). Scoop a tablespoon of the mixture onto each oyster as they grill.
Fire up your grill to medium hot. Pre- shuck a few dozen oysters and remove the butter from the fridge. Place a pat of butter onto each shucked oyster and get those ‘sters on the grill. Watch the butter and oysters begin to bubble. After about 2-4 minutes of bubbling and sizzling remove the oysters from the heat. The oysters will be ready when the edges of their meat begins to curl and the butter sauce is bubbling hot. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Enjoy with a frosty beverage.
Source: Hog Island Oyster Company
Here’s a fun deatail: each picnic table is fitted with a special basket to help collect shells. The shells are cleaned, crushed, and ready to be repurposed for a variety of projects. For example, these shells could be used as cultch — a natural substrate that oyster larvae like to settle on and grow from. Cultch is critical in the creation of new oyster reefs, so the next time you encounter an oyster shell recycling program, remember to pitch in! I’ve also been collecting shells for my own project… which will reveal itself next May.
Almost immediately following the Hog Island Farm tour and shucking lunch, we headed over to The Marshall Store. This little historic outpost along Route 1 serves a variety of oyster treats with one heck of a view. We ordered a plate of the Marshall Store Oyster Rockefellers and a clam chowder. Creamy, crunchy, and perfectly grilled, these were some of the finest Oyster Rockefellers I’ve had in a long, long time.
If you can’t get your hands on them in person, you can also make them yourself. While we were at The Marshall Store, I discovered a great book called “Oyster Culture“ by Gwendolyn Meyer and Doreen Schmid. It offers a visually-stimulating and informative look into the Tomales Bay oyster industry. Plus, they give up the original Marshall Store Oyster Rockefeller recipe in it! It’s a beautiful book and one of my favorite coffee table additions this year.
Getting back to San Francisco was quite easy from Tomales Bay. You can either go the “scenic route” down Route 1 and into Point Reyes National Seashore (and possibly hit up Muir Woods too) or head back towards US Route 101. I’d recommend the scenic drive, although I do warn you that parts are quite curvy and possibly foggy. Leave the driving to an expert… aka not me.
Got any other recommendations on where to go around these parts? Leave a comment!
Have you ever met someone seemingly new, and then later realized that you’ve met them before in another context? That’s what happened shortly after my interview with Executive Chef David Seigal of Cull & Pistol. Before having this sit down with Dave, we were both at Dinner Over the River last October. I was the event photographer and Dave was the chef. Small world! Plus, I have the memory of a goldfish.
BTW: Cull & Pistol does a fantastic happy hour deal (3:30-6PM M-F) where every oyster on the menu is a dollar! It’s one of my favorite go-to places in Manhattan now. If you ever spot me at the counter slurping some oysters, don’t be shy! Say hello
When you eat an oyster, you’re experiencing a place. But that doesn’t mean you have to take the oyster’s word for it! You can go see for yourself — and you’ll probably be glad you did. Totally gives a whole new meaning to “the world is your oyster” doesn’t it?
If you’re asking yourself why would want to travel for oysters? Well, here are some reasons:
- Great scenery: oysters grow in some of the most pristine and beautiful environments in the world.
- Great company: no one is as knowledgeable about oysters as oyster growers themselves.
- Great taste: the best tasting oysters are when they are at their freshest — pluck one out of the water and see!
Ok, but why Ireland? If you’re based in the US like me, you have to travel to experience the Irish oyster. You can’t find many international oysters in the country, with exceptions to Canada, New Zealand, and occasionally Chile. A quicker bivalve-gastronomic trip might be to Toronto, where shucking legend Patrick McMurray brings in precious Kelly Galways for a few months during the year. But if you’re a wanderlust, definitely go for the whole shebang.
Ireland is as beautiful as it is diverse. From County Clare to Galway to Dublin, we got to experience the gorgeous coastline of west coast, the interior countryside, and the bustling city. We had surprisingly nice weather, made many new friends, and returned feeling refreshed and inspired. For anyone who’s interested in traveling to Ireland to check out the oyster scene first-hand, I am here to give you some inspiration and insight.
First, you’ll want to read about the oyster farms in Ireland that I visited.
Second, check out the variety of oysters around Ireland to get the big picture.
And then lastly, read on to get a sense of the path that I followed. It’s one itinerary that won’t disappoint.
Cliffs of Moher
I’m a sucker for nature. I love visiting National Parks and watching sunsets. Dramatic oceanfront cliffs are especially alluring, and these Cliffs of Moher are a must-see. These majestic plateaus of grassy, green fields stretch out like rolling waves on the sea, but plummet almost vertically into the deep blue water below. Located at the southwestern edge of the Burren region in County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher attract over one million visitors a year. While you won’t find oysters anywhere near here, it’s worth visiting to get a full sense of the environment. We had about half an hour to take a look around before having to move to our next oyster farm, which was enough to capture some iconic photos. Along the walk, we encountered a traditional Irish flutist playing some typical folk music. It was charming at first, but quickly turned the latter.
The Burren is a karst-landscape region in northwest County Clare, a bit inland from the Cliffs of Moher. It is one of the largest karst landscapes in Europe, bordered by the Atlantic and Galway Bay on the west and north, respectively. A small portion has been designated as Burren National Park, the smallest of Ireland’s six National Parks. But despite it’s size, The Burren is home to a remarkable collection of plants and animals. No doubt the limestone also has positive benefits to the oyster as well. Oyster shells are made of calcium carbonite, which contains elements that the limestone help supply. The crisp minerality of the oysters here might also be attributable to The Burren. We drove up the Green Road to see the rare species of flora and fauna for ourselves…and ended up eating wild blackberries while enjoying this view below. They were tasty! If you’re a hiking lover, this is a great trail for you to try.
Moran’s Oyster Cottage on the Weir
Moran’s is a must-visit destination for all oyster and seafood lovers. This charming seafood restaurant is a family-run business that dates back more than 250 (!) years. That’s two and a half times as old as the Grand Central Oyster Bar. In the 1800′s, the Weir was a bustling trading port. Today, it’s a rather calm and quiet waterway. We had just left the Kelly Galway oyster farm, full of bivalves, so I decided to spend the remaining space in my stomach other fare. Moran’s not only offers excellent seafood, but also has produced world champion oyster shuckers.
Galway International Oyster & Seafood Festival
Every September, the Galway Oyster Festival takes over this port town. Foodie fans from all over the world flock to this event for a weekend of eating, drinking, and being merry. No wonder it’s considered one of National Geographic’s Top 10 Must-Do’s of September. This year, it was a double whammy as the National Hurling Championships were happening the same weekend. So you can imagine what happens when a lot of oysters + Guinness + a fiercely competitive and passionate sport all mix and mingle together. Awesomeness ensues. (By the way, for anyone who doesn’t know hurling, check it out. It’s a crazy sport!)
One of the festival’s marquee events is the International Oyster Shucking Championship. This shucking competition determines the best of the best among the national shucking champions from around the world. 18 countries participated in the world championship this year. Each contestant must shuck 30 oysters cleanly and quickly. Some assume that getting the fastest time matters the most, which isn’t true. It’s about time AND presentation — in fact, the appearance of the oyster trays play a huge part in the judging. The competition has strict rules. Not having a good understanding of them may cost the shucker unnecessary deductions.
Kelly Galway supplied all of the oysters for the shucking competition. I was invited to guest judge the event and was briefed in on my duties the night before. I was surprised to find out that everyone would be shucking the native European flat oyster. There were so many of them — 540 at the least — and I couldn’t manage eating one! Sadly, I was way too hungover from celebrating the night before. Guinnesses are deceptively low in alcohol content, but nonetheless deadly to a lightweight. But such is the Irish party life.
Amazing celebrity sighting: I got to meet Patrick McMurray, multi-year World Shucking Champion and oyster connoisseur at the festival! Although he wasn’t competing, the crowds were still cheering for him. Clearly still a local favorite!
B also joined in on the oyster fun. He was asked to step in as a substitute entrant in the Tribal Oyster Feast-Off, a casual oyster-eating competition amongst non-local representatives from each of the 14 tribes of Galway. To my surprise, B was actually a very competitive oyster eater and ended up winning the whole thing. I totally didn’t expect that to happen and neither did the organizers, I suspect You can check out the video of this happening in my Ireland Muze.
Kelly Galway was the exclusive supplier of oysters throughout the festival. Every ticketed attendee had the opportunity to order half a dozen Galway natives for their slurping pleasure. Fresh Guinness flowed nonstop at the bar, and there were many other tasty food stands as well. I was surprised to find even a couple Japanese food stalls there. Sushi, it seems, is still a fairly new genre in Ireland. On the last day, a couple other oyster stalls popped up in the Marquee tent. Surprisingly, the first items to sell out were the live scallops. I couldn’t even get my hands on one! Lucky for me, the Connemara oysters (both natives and rocks) were plenty delicious.
The Temple Bar
When we were in Dublin, one of the many touristy things to do was to visit The Temple Bar. It was actually less crowded than I expected it to be. I ordered a delicious crab sandwich and these two tasty oyster shooters. Definitely order the oyster shooters and make some new friends. I really liked the menu/restaurant philosophy, “If you don’t love life, you can’t enjoy an oyster.” So true.
A Quick Wrap-Up of the Ireland Oyster Tour Basics
When to go: It might be best to plan your trip for late September so you can catch the Galway International Oyster & Seafood Festival. It will just be past Ireland’s peak tourism season, so you might be able to score some deals on airfare or lodging. The cooler temperatures also make for incredible oysters!
What to pack: Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. A lightweight waterproof and windproof jacket is a must. Durable walking shoes. Layers are your friend. And maybe a little empty space in your luggage for some spirited souvenirs (read: Irish whiskey).
For how long and how many places: Give yourself a week to explore three major areas. We spent most of our time in Galway and the surrounding area, but also had a couple days to explore Dublin. You probably don’t want to do more than that or else it wouldn’t be very relaxing. The coasts are beautiful and you’ll want to take things slow. Also, plan for things to go wrong as it definitely happens.
Where to stay: Do consider Hotel Meyrick in Galway. It’s right next to the train station and walking distance from the Galway Oyster Festival tents and the city’s party area. In Dublin, we stayed at the Trinity Capital Hotel. It’s also conveniently located by Trinity College. We found Dublin to be very easy to walk — especially since we’re used to walking everywhere as New Yorkers.
Want more suggestions on where to go? Or do you have suggestions you’d like to share? Leave a comment!
To celebrate the newly released Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant Cookbook, Executive Chef Sandy Ingber hosted a wonderful 6-course dinner and wine pairing last night for New York’s most avid oyster fans.
The Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant is unequivocally the most iconic oyster institution in all of New York City. Uniquely situated in the Terminal’s lower level, with the famous “Whispering Gallery” at its entrance, the Grand Central Oyster Bar is a must-visit establishment for locals and visitors alike. Having turned 100 years old earlier this year, it was only appropriate to commemorate the occasion with a dinner of timeless Oyster Bar favorites. Most, if not all of the dishes are also captured in the new Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant Cookbook.
Our first course of the evening featured a diverse raw bar selection of three oyster species: the GCOB Bluepoint, Kumamoto, and wild-harvested Maine Belon. Oh, and a tasty little Topneck Clam joined the party too. The oysters paired beautifully with the Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc 2011 from Sonoma Valley — especially the potent and punchy Belon. The taste of the distinctively metallic European flat oyster took me back to Ireland…
The second course was a poached Norwegian farmed salmon filet with cucumber dill salad and sauce verte, paired with the Heidsieck & Co Monopole “Blue Top” Champagne Brut NV. This chilled dish was a great transition between the raw and the cooked. I loved the texture and “bite” of the salmon, as well as the pickled tanginess of the cucumber salad.
Our third course showcased cooked oysters in two ways: fried oyster in the half shell with tartar sauce and GCOB’s Oyster Rockefeller. Now, I prefer my oysters raw and naked, but man, were these oysters well cooked and “dressed!” Both used GCOB Bluepoints as the oyster of choice. The bites were paired with a Chateau St. Michelle “Eroica” Riesling 2012 from Washington State. I think this was around time when I started feeling tipsy from all of the pairings.
The fourth course featured the always-amazing oyster pan roast with buttered toast. This decadent, silky dish was sublime. I swirled the paprika powder around the soft oyster bellies before taking a spoonful in. The whole bite just melted in my mouth. If you could have only one thing from Grand Central Oyster Bar, I would strongly recommend ordering this. While I love their clam chowder and fried oysters, you might have a hard time finding a pan roast like this anywhere else. It’s a great dish and a great piece of New York food history. In the new cookbook, there are a couple of pages dedicated to the oyster pan roast, including a list of seafood variations (you know, just to mix things up.) This dish was paired with a Antica Chardonnay 2011 from Napa Valley.
The fifth course was a perfect portion of broiled Florida Mahi Mahi filet with wild mushroom crust, chive beurre blanc, and rice pilaf. It was paired with Francis Ford Coppola “Votre Sante” Pinot Noir 2011 from California, which was a very approachable, light red. It was also accompanied by a couple stalks of crisp asparagus, which I thought was nice textural contrast to the fish.
The sixth and final course was dessert. Out came two slivers of cake put side-by-side like as if they were a couple. The Grand Central Oyster Bar Key Lime Pie and the Cheesecake work surprisingly well together as a single bite! Our sweet ending was topped off with the Ferrari-Carano “El Dorado Gold” 2008 from Sonoma, which I remember having when we were visiting their winery back in 2009.
Now with our bellies full and glasses nearly all finished, we sat back and enjoyed the warm and bustling ambiance around us. Even when this restaurant is empty, I still feel like it’s busy. It’s one of those places that possesses a New York soul — perhaps from all those many years of serving countless hungry, oyster-craving mouths. Nowadays, I have to admit that I rarely drop by the Grand Central Oyster Bar for raw oysters anymore, but when I do, it’s like re-experiencing my first oyster-enlightened tasting again.
Chef Ingber came around and signed my copy of his new cookbook. The book itself is nicely designed and contains just about every single restaurant recipe you’d want to get your hands on. From pan roasts to Oyster Rockefeller, gazpacho with Maine lobster and corn to basic dipping sauces… this book has quickly become my new go-to seafood cooking guide. (I got really excited when I randomly flipped to a page about oyster shooters. ) If you’re looking for a new coffee table book to add to your collection, make sure to put this on your holiday wishlist.
As a sneak preview, here is the Oyster Rockefeller recipe by Chef Ingber.
Oysters Rockefeller (serves 4)
This is one of our signature dishes. Chef Scott Conant featured this dish on the Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate, calling it “old school cooking at its best.” As he said, every component needs to be perfect.
You’ll have some spinach left over. It could be a cook’s treat, or you could prepare another eight oysters.
24 Bluepoint oysters on the half shell
Creamed spinach (page 202)
Hollandaise Sauce (page 207)
Position an oven rack in the top position and heat the broiler. Remove the oysters from their shells.
Place the shells on a rimmed baking sheet and spread 1 heaping tablespoon of the creamed spinach into each shell. Set the oysters on top of the spinach. Broil until the edges of the oysters are just starting to ruffle, about 1 minute. Remove the pan from the broiler, top each oyster with about 1 tablespoon of hollandaise sauce, and return the pan to the oven. Broil until the sauce browns, 1 to 1½ minutes.
Using tongs, divide the oysters among 4 dinner plates and serve immediately.
Lastly, just for the record, I hijacked my fiancé’s dinner plans for us this evening to do this. B rarely plans anything — mostly because I enjoy planning things and tend to take over his plans anyway. Don’t get me wrong, we both had a great time tonight. But I just wanted to let him (and everyone else) know that he’s the best sport ever for putting up with my oyster shenanigans!
Disclosure: All photos were taken with my iPhone 5S and posted to Instagram. My and my fiancé’s dinners were on the house, but endorsements were not paid for by Grand Central Oyster Bar or any of its affiliates. All opinions and feedback are my own.