Demystifying New York's Favorite Mollusk, The Oyster
On a recent Friday night, a crowd amasses outside Williamsburg oyster mecca Maison Premiere, smoking their way through a 90-minute wait for a table. Meanwhile on Manhattan's West Side, diners pack the bar at Aqua Grill, slurping down more than 30 bivalve varieties, and on 29th Street, the salivating hordes spill into the Ace Hotel lobby bar, waiting in boozy purgatory for a table at John Dory Oyster Bar. Just uptown, ad executives eat themselves into briny oblivion beneath the tiled arches at Grand Central Oyster Bar, where primetime dinner reservations are scarce at best.
You could say New York is experiencing a major bout of oystermania. Demand for oysters has risen relentlessly since the 1990s. To meet it, oystermen are increasingly transitioning from fishing to farming; with oyster beds largely ruined by overfishing, pollution, and disease, farms make oysters a renewable commodity.
Grand Central chef-owner Sandy Ingber says farmed oysters mean increased availability during summer months, when oysters go through a spawning period that renders their flesh thin, flabby, and unpalatable. "Back in the 1990s, there were so few oysters in the summer . . . it was just brutal. Now, when one is going out of season, another's coming back on," he says.
At Aqua Grill, owner Jeremy Marshall says he chooses from more than 250 varieties; something is always in season. Marshall likes Rhode Island Moonstones: "They have a sweet meat and briny finish. There are great subtleties to the liquor [the brine inside the oyster], so you get these cucumber and watermelon flavors."
Like wine, oysters take their name and flavor from their surroundings—all East Coast oysters are the same species, Crassostrea virginica—so they're defined by the bay they come from. Those who live by the bivalve tend to speak of the different varieties in start-to-finish terms and flavor notes.
Ingber prefers Island Creek Oysters (George W. Bush's favorite—he calls them "Oyster du President"), from Duxbury, Massachusetts. He says it's best to try an oyster "naked," without cocktail sauce or other accoutrements: "Put it in your mouth, swirl it around, get the full flavor. You can taste the terroir of the oyster. Then put whatever you want on top."
At Island Creek Oyster Farm, wholesaler Chris Sherman says his oysters taste like the sea floor: "We plant our oysters right in the mud, with the algae, so there's this great vegetal tone, celery-grassy flavors, and a buttery texture," he says. At low tide, Island Creeks are exposed to the air and clamp shut to survive. This encourages thick muscle growth and makes for a "really strong, sweet finish," Sherman says, "as the enzymes in your mouth start digesting that muscle." This kind of hearty meat is unusual for farm-raised oysters, which are known for being pampered by farmers rather than struggling for survival.
Marshall says wild oysters tend to be heartier. "Wild shells are firmer and don't crack as easily," he says. "The meat inside tends to be stronger. Liquor retention is much better, because the shells have been tossed around, and it's survival of the fittest." But, Marshall says, because of their relative scarcity, "You just don't see them that often."
There are still wild catches around if you know what to look for. One popular local variety is the "Naked Cowboy" from Long Island Sound.
Long Island oysterman Jeffrey Mannheimer has been diving for shellfish in the sound for 25 years. He's one of a handful of locals to make a successful business of it—most fishermen use other methods, but Mannheimer loves to dive. "I enjoy being underwater. I'd rather go 30 feet deep than pull on 60 feet of aluminum pole and get 20 oysters. I can catch them faster."
This year, the sea is abundant. "I'm working areas where more often than not, we don't have work," Mannheimer says. "There are no guarantees with fishing. We had no oysters for a 10-year period."
In the mid-'90s, a plague wiped out the entire local catch. Mannheimer stayed afloat by fishing for clams and buying and selling fish instead. When restaurants were smacked during the 2008 financial crash, demand for fish fell and Mannheimer's trading business suffered, but the oyster beds were back. "I went back to the water, and I've been happy ever since," he says. Oysters from the sound bring a good price for their hardiness (big, thick shells, longer shelf life), relative rarity, and punchy, full flavor.
Since then, demand has risen. Karen Rivara, a founding member of Noank Aquaculture Cooperative in Connecticut, credits the recent craze to new ways of thinking about food. "Oysters fit into the new trends, which focus on local and sustainable foods. People are very engaged with where food comes from. With oysters, production is sustainable—they're eating something that will be replaced.
"They also just taste really good," Rivara adds, almost as an afterthought. "There's a wow factor to eating oysters that stays with people."
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