A Dozen Ways to Enjoy A Dozen Oysters in New Orleans
This was my first time in The Big Easy, and although I experienced (aka ATE) quite a lot on my trip, including warm beignets with chilled Chicory Cafe Au Laits at Cafe DuMonde, ridiculously good shrimp remoulade at Arnaud's, addictive crawfish etouffee at LeBayou, a potent Sazerac at the Carousel Bar & Lounge in Hotel Monteleone and an even more deadly Hurricane from Pat O'Brien's -- this story is about my main squeeze: oysters.
Oysters play an integral part in the commercial and cultural tapestry of New Orleans. From the world-class cuisine to the arts, contemporary fashion to community projects, New Orleaneans have embraced the bivalve across nearly every interest and down every avenue. Yet unlike in many other parts of the country where the half shell is often raised high up on a pricey pedestal (breeding oyster snobbery), oyster lovers here consider them as an "everyman's food," something that deserves to be enjoyed by everyone. And enjoyed, they most certainly are. 5th-generation oyster purveyor Sal Suneri of P & J Oyster Company, the oldest family-operated business of its kind in the country, conservatively estimates that 50,000 oysters are consumed every day in The French Quarter. Who would've thought that this little 10 by 13-ish block of land could slurp more oysters "by block" than anywhere in the world?
The secret might be in the varied selection. One can enjoy oysters in a smorgasbord of ways here -- whether raw or charbroiled, topped or in a sandwich. Then of course there's oyster stews, chowders, gumbos, fried oysters, smoked oysters, the list goes on and on. It's almost impossible to name off all of the variations, but here are twelve iconic ways that every oyster lover should give a try. OK...
First thing's first...
#1 Charbroiled Oysters
For years my oyster-enlightened friends have been urging me to visit New Orleans to try the legendary charbroiled oysters only found here. I finally (yes, finally) did it. And oh my goodness, am I a changed oyster lover! Charbroiled oysters appear side by side to raw oysters on most menus. The best oyster houses in the city will select ultra meaty Louisiana oysters and shuck them on demand for this decadent snack. Rows of shucked oysters are drizzled with generous helpings of garlic butter, parmesan cheese, and seasoning before being set over a grill to be flame-kissed for just the right amount of time. Either half a dozen or a dozen charbroiled oysters will come in one order, along with a few lemon wedges and spongy bread to sop up the buttery drippings. Who has the best charbroiled oysters is always up for debate. Almost every oyster bar has their own version. We decided to conduct a little taste test around the city to determine our very favorite.
Drago's -- Home of the Original Charbroiled Oyster
We tried Drago's charbroiled oysters at the New Orleans Oyster Festival and at the Hilton location in downtown New Orleans. I ordered a dozen at the charbroiling bar, which is definitely the best place to sit in the entire restaurant. Being able to watch the two grillmasters do their magic made the experience really memorable. (Fun fact: Drago's uses approximately 110 gallons of garlic butter on any given day over a weekend.)
The cheesy, salty flavor of the oysters were amazingly bold, although a few were caked with way too much topping. Most of the oysters were cooked to perfection and just a few were overcooked. I didn't mind it too much though as I like that bit of chewiness. Drago's at the festival were a little more subdued than the ones at the restaurant. All of it paired really well with the Abita Strawberry Harvest Ale -- my newest beer obsession, thanks to NOLA.
Acme Oyster House -- Worth the Wait!
This was our first stop after checking into our hotel. Acme Oyster House is well known for its relaxed atmosphere, juicy oysters, and their formidable oyster eating challenge (15 dozen in 1 hour). Their charbroiled oysters were excellent. The oysters were topped with just the right amount of butter and cheese, and retained their juices. The flavor tasted more buttery than anything else, so adding a squeeze of lemon was a good idea. The bread that accompanied the oysters was also pretty delicious. Super chewy and a bit gummy (that's a good thing). I was told that the humidity of the region had something to do with how the breads come out.
[headingseparator]Oyster Lover Tip[/headingseparator] Acme is a crazy popular New Orleans "destination," (shamelessly touristy) so expect a decent wait over the weekend. If you're with another friend, here's what you should do: Have one person stand in line for Acme while the other runs across the street to grab two frozen cocktails. Having a drink in hand makes the line much more bearable. But be warned, you can't bring the drinks inside, so either be quick about your sips or prepare to toss your cups prematurely.
Felix's Restaurant -- Where The Locals Go
Across the street from Acme Oyster House is a little restaurant named Felix's. Although the lines are not nearly as long, their food and service is excellent. To be honest, I actually preferred the chargrilled oyster sauce here. The buttery flavors are a little more subtle, but still insanely tasty. I only wish that the oysters themselves were a bit bigger.
[headingseparator]Shuckin Good Time[/headingseparator]
You can't have an authentic New Orleans oyster bar experience without interacting with the shuckers. These seasoned professionals work tirelessly behind the counter, shucking oyster after oyster in a swift and seemingly effortless manner. Meanwhile, they're also engaging in conversation with their clientele... even a little flirtation. Okay, actually a lot of flirtation from some. We had a ton of fun hanging out with Steve aka "Escobar" at Acme Oyster House, Isadore and Eddie aka "Shell-o" at Felix's.
#2 Raw Oysters on the Half Shell
There's a remarkable sense of community and Louisiana pride here, and most restaurants take care to serve locally sourced food. Sustainability isn't a conversation or buzzword here -- it's simply just done and part of the business culture. Every oyster that I had on this trip was from Louisiana, but also harvested from different areas (more on that later). Prior to this trip, I would have simply referred to them as "Gulf oysters."
Now I know better.
Up North, oysters from the Gulf states are collectively stigmatized for being bland, unappetizing, and potentially harmful to consume raw due to the warm water. From what I can tell after slurping many raw oysters at many of New Orleans' most reputable oyster bars, this assumption is simply untrue. To be fair, the Gulf naturally has lower salinity and if you're accustomed to sipping the near-ocean brine of an Northern Atlantic oyster, you're going to claim that a Louisiana oyster has no taste whatsoever. But for those with a more sensitive and adaptive palate, there's many flavors to behold. Here are a couple oyster bars to seek out for the best raw oyster experience.
Bourbon House -- Designed for Connoisseurs
Dickie Brennan's Bourbon House is built to be a food-lover's paradise. The extensive food & beverage selection, airy ambiance, and attentive service makes this establishment well-equipped to accommodate any important occasion. For a die-hard oyster lover, the raw bar is the place to be. Just past the lobby sits a marble semi-circle countertop that hugs around an orderly shellfish and crudo display. Once seated at the bar, you can either choose to admire the colorful oyster plate collection or watch the big game on the flatscreen TV mounted above.
What I admire about Bourbon House is their conscientious effort to educate patrons about where their seafood comes from, especially when it comes to their oysters. At each table setting sits a large Louisiana map that outlines the 26 of the 28 areas from where their Louisiana oysters are harvested. Although each area correlates with specific bays, bayous, and islands, these designations weren't intended to promote the different flavor profiles or characteristics of that area's oysters. Instead, these classifications were set forth by the state of Louisiana under the Molluscan Shellfish Program for food safety purposes and are carefully regulated to minimize the risk of foodborne illness.
Nonetheless, patrons and shuckers alike still leverage the areas as a way to talk about their favorites. "I like oysters from Area 13 because they're meatier and sweeter than the others," remarked Ricky, one of the shuckers working behind the bar. The harvest areas being offered change day to day and are written on a cute Louisiana-shaped chalkboard behind the bar. On the day when I visited, there were four different harvest areas to choose from, so I decided to try them all to see how they'd compare.
[headingseparator]Louisiana Oyster Tasting[/headingseparator]
Area 3 St. Bernard Parish, below Lake Borgne - Medium-sized (2.5-3 in), very low salinity, subtle earthy body, minerally finish
Area 4 St. Bernard Parish, Etoi Bay - Large-sized (3-3.5 in), slightly more salty than Area 3, savory and mollusky body, clean finish
Area 9 Plaquemines Parish, West Bay - Small-medium sized (2-2.5 in), very low salinity similar to Area 3, creamy and milky body, clean finish
Area 13 Jefferson/Lafourche Parish, Grand Isle - Large-sized (3-3.5 in), mild salinity, chewy texture, brackish and buttery finish
I have to admit, as a first time taste tester of the various Louisiana estuaries, it was a challenge to differentiate the subtleties between these four areas. Areas 4 and 13 were the most pronounced and therefore more easily characterized, whereas 3 and 9 blended together in my mind. Nonetheless, the overall freshness and meatiness beamed across the plate. Every oyster was deliciously fat and full of life. Simple and unassuming, shucked perfectly.
Pêche -- A Contemporary Gem
Pêche Seafood Grill, recent winner of the James Beard Best New Restaurant Award, is the first-ever New Orleans restaurant receive this honor. Their excellence in part stems from the desire and determination to work with only the most reputable seafood purveyors, oyster farmers and fishermen. The oysters that I had were from Area 3, which could have very well been the same ones that I tried at Bourbon House earlier in the day. But after chatting with Executive Chef and Co-Owner Ryan Prewitt, I learned exactly how and where these oysters were harvested. All of a sudden, my oyster outing had more meaning.
In addition to offering the local oysters, Pêche also sources oysters from "far away," enabling an opportunity to conduct an East, West, and Gulf oyster comparison. (While I was there, only local oysters were available.) To handle the variety of different shell structures, the shuckers equip themselves with an array of knives. Devin, my chill shucker of that evening, graciously shared his collection with me.
[headingseparator]Raw Bar Etiquette[/headingseparator]
Oysters in New Orleans are sold by the half dozen ($8-9) or dozen ($14-16) raw, and typically you always want to order at least a dozen. Locals will call out single digits like "four" or "five" to connote the number of dozens they want. At Felix's, we sat next to a couple who downed four dozen easy. Their empty shells were piled high on the countertop like a gastronomic trophy. The size of the Louisiana oysters are also significantly larger than those from the East and West Coasts. Because of that, slurping oysters from the bill gets... tricky. The recommended method is to slurp from the top -- hover over the oyster and suck it up.
#3 Raw Oyster on a Saltine
Believe it or not, I had my first ever raw oyster on a saltine on this trip with a couple new slurping gal pals, Tiffany (designer/founder of Freret & Napoleon jewelry and apparel) and her roomie Claire at Royal House Oyster Bar. I guess I've seen it done before on Instagram, but never saw the appeal in it. Well, let me tell you that this simple snack is a revelation! The crispy, salty cracker complements the mild-mannered "cocktail sized" Louisiana oysters perfectly. I should emphasize cocktail size. The oyster to saltine ratio matters. Too big and it's overwhelming. Although I usually shun the use of cocktail sauce on my oysters, I am going to make an exception for this scenario. It helps create a nice combination of salty, sweet, and buttery flavors.
Photo of ladies slurping provided by Freret & Napoleon.
#4 Raw Oysters with Champagne Mignonette and Cajun Caviar
Feeling fancy? Then this is seriously a must-order at Bourbon House. Try one Louisiana oysters topped with a refreshing champagne mignonette and a small spoonful of local Bowfin caviar and you'll want another 11. Bowfin is a freshwater fish native to the Louisiana swamps and its eggs make a surprisingly good caviar. Check out this fascination video about Louisiana Caviar Company and their prized product (thanks for the link Sandie!). Make sure to also ask to try the specialty Ghost Pepper Caviar. It's pretty incredible.
#5 Oyster Brochette (Bacon-Wrapped Oysters)
According to the natural laws of gluttony, the de facto answer to anything including the word "bacon" is YES. At Drago's, these kind-of-epic oyster wrapped in bacon skewers are first broiled, then fried and served over a signature Jack Daniel's glaze and horseradish sauce. Honestly, it wasn't the most responsible lunch, but hey, you only live once!
#6 Smoked Fried Oysters
At the New Orleans Oyster Festival, Grand Isle Restaurant had the most delightful little dish. Their smoked fried oysters with garlic aioli really stood out in both appearance, flavor and texture. The smoky flavor permeated through every succulent oyster bite and the tomato helped cut through the richness of the sauce.
#7 Oyster Po-Boy
A classic creation that's perfect for a leisurely lunch. In New Orleans, you'll encounter a ton of variations on the oyster po-boy. We tried the BBQ Oyster Po-Boy from Red Fish Grill that tasted like a combination of oysters and buffalo wings. Bourbon House offered theirs on Leidenheimer French bread with lettuce, pickles, and lemon-infused butter.
#8 Oyster Gumbo
Grabbing a bowl of gumbo in New Orleans is a must. This classic 18th century Louisiana dish is a hearty melting pot of flavors and textures. At the oyster festival, we sampled a gumbo topped with fried oysters and rice from The Famous Gumbo Pot and The Original Oyster Factory. This rich concoction usually has a mix of proteins including chicken, sausage, and other seafoods. If you're sensitive to spice, make sure to ask about the spiciness level first. It can get a little hot!
#9 Oyster Stew and #10 Oyster Chowder
What is the difference between an oyster stew and an oyster chowder? The oyster stew is lighter and really highlights the natural flavors of the oyster, whereas the oyster chowder is richer in nature. Deciding between the two might also come down to how you want to pace your meal. The former would make for a good appetizer and the latter felt more like an entree. I personally liked trying both at Bourbon House.
#11 Baked Oysters With a Side of Heritage
Oyster Rockefeller is perhaps the most famous of all the oyster dishes. Originally invented at Antoine's by owner Jules Alaciatore, it's been said that the dish was so rich that he decided to name it after the richest man in America at the time, John D. Rockefeller. Ironically, the Oyster Rockefeller could also be seen as a poor man's escargot. The dish was developed in 1899 as a substitute for snails, during a time when it was getting increasingly difficult to source French snails.
Oyster Bienville is another well-loved baked oyster creation created by Antoine's Chef Auguste Michel and later popularized by the proprietor of Arnaud's Restaurant, Arnaud Cazanave about 20 years after the invention of the Oyster Rockefeller. It is named after Jean de Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, the founder of New Orleans in 1718. In addition to these, which can be found in several oyster bars, there are also other more proprietary creations including Bourbon House's Oyster Fonseca (you can get a trio of 4 Rockefeller, 4 Bienville and 4 Fonseca for $23), and Arnaud's Oysters Kathryn, Oysters Ohan and Oysters Suzette.
#12 Oyster Shooter
Lastly, and this is one I didn't have time/stomach room for but wish I had, is the oyster shooter. Usually created with a single shucked oysters in a shot glass and bloody mary mix, cocktail sauce, vodka, horseradish, all that other good stuff. They're pretty tasty and a fun way to start off a boozy brunch. We've heard good things about the shooters over at Acme Oyster House!
A Word of Caution to the Wise
To anyone who dares attempt this New Orleans oyster crawl, I would recommend allocating at least 5 days to your quest. Don't attempt in one weekend -- your stomach will hate you...
Many thanks to Sandie, Dickie and the rest of the Bourbon House gang for really pulling out all the stops for this oyster lover! Also a big shout out to Chef Ryan Prewitt at Pêche for the oyster chat and amazing eats.