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.
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