Dine: Comeback of raw oysters presents challenges

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"The fact that oysters are about the only food eaten alive is part of what makes them a unique gastronomic experience," wrote Mark Kurlansky in the opener of "The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell."

"That, and the sense that no other food brings us closer to the sea."

Like many Americans, Pittsburghers are getting reacquainted with the distinct pleasure of slurping raw oysters, based on the growing number of local restaurants serving them.

Oysters a trendy addition to restaurant menus

Henry Dewey of the Penn Avenue Fish Company talks about the various types of fresh oysters, which have become a trendy addition to restaurant menus. (Video by Nate Guidry; 10/27/2013)

Among these are Salt of the Earth in Garfield, The Livermore in East Liberty, Wintzell's Oyster House in Pleasant Hills, Rumfish Grille in Collier and Off the Hook in Marshall. Before this year, Penn Avenue Fish Company and Eleven, both in the Strip District, had been the city's go-tos.

But raw oysters bring challenges, including how to open them properly, how to keep them alive and fresh, how to source them and how to protect consumers from contaminants.

Pittsburgh restaurants are trying to keep up with demand by honing their shucking skills. At Penn Avenue Fish Company, owner Henry Dewey says he's "an oyster-shucking machine." That's a feat considering they're not terribly easy to open with an oyster knife. To open one requires a wedge-and-twist wrist move in the oyster's hinge.

Restaurants with less-seasoned shuckers aren't displaying such beautiful specimens. Some oysters arrive to the table strained, like they've been chewed before they're returned to the half shell. As oyster sales rise in town, let's hope the presentation will improve.

The rise of oyster farming is one reason these bivalves are becoming popular on menus again. More precautions also are being taken by purveyors and restaurants to prevent contamination that can occur when oysters are plucked from warm waters. There was a scare 20 years ago that kept oysters off menus for years.

To build up farming, for example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service has increased funding for native oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay from $1.02 million in 1999 to $4.6 million in 2009.

Unlike some fish farming, oyster farming is environmentally restorative. Oysters act as sponges for aquatic nitrogen pollution, which diminishes algae blooms.

And in this farm-to-table era, oyster farming has resulted in more direct relationships among growers, markets and restaurants.

Derek Stevens, executive chef at Eleven in the Strip District, buys directly from Fishers Island Oyster Farm in the waters off New London, Conn. Rowan Jacobsen, an oyster expert and author of "A Geography of Oysters," said they're among the best oysters of the fall, delicious for their "strikingly clean finish."

Mr. Dewey agrees about the importance of sourcing. "Reputable sources are my first line of defense," he said.

He also relies on his senses for identifying healthy oysters, starting with smell. "If my nose turns any direction, I'm not going to serve it," he said.

Mr. Dewey takes additional precautions. He won't serve an oyster if the shell is cracked or if it's dry. If there's mud around the hinge, he chucks it because it will seep into the liquor, ruining the taste.

"You have to constantly monitor oysters," he said. "You have to inspect each one."

That's one reason oysters are more about tradition than making money.

"Raw bars are part of the rich culture of America," said Tom Meyer, executive vice president of Clyde's Restaurant Group in Washington, D.C. The company hired him 20 years ago to rebuild the oyster program at Old Ebbitt Grill, also in D.C. The oyster bar sells 2,000 to 3,000 oysters a day.

Still, they're not a big revenue generator. The restaurant might purchase an order of 200 oysters at $1 a piece wholesale, for a total of $200. Of those, 175 are fit for sale at $2 a piece ($350). Add to the balance -- $150 -- the costs of the salary of a shucker paid $15 an hour for an eight-hour shift ($120) and there's a profit of just $30.

Kevin Sousa, executive chef of Salt of the Earth, serves oysters once a week because he enjoys it, even though oysters aren't moneymakers. Inspired by Foreign & Domestic in Austin, Texas, which offers "dollar oyster Tuesdays," Mr. Sousa's restaurant sells several hundred oysters each Tuesday from 10 p.m. until they're gone, also for a buck apiece.

They include oysters from very cold waters, such as Beausoleil from New Brunswick, a gateway oyster that's small and sweet enough to convert skeptics. Prince Edward Island Malpeques are often an option, an accessible oyster with bold flavor and a clean finish.

Great care is needed to serve oysters properly, Mr. Meyer said.

"You have to make sure they're handled right, they're shucked right and they're served right." He says that meticulous sourcing, training designated shuckers, building storage areas specifically for oysters and lab-testing shipments before oysters go on the menu have been key to building a successful raw bar.

But not every restaurant has the resources for these moves. In Pittsburgh, restaurateurs have been conservative with what they're serving and when.

On a Tuesday a few weeks ago, every shucked oyster at Salt of the Earth was overrun with tiny red parasites. All were discarded.

"Even though the oysters were from two different states, it didn't matter," Mr. Sousa said. "It was a storage issue."

The chef went back to purveyor Samuels and Son Seafood, based in Philadelphia, which addressed it with its suppliers. And when there were no oysters that night, Mr. Sousa and his staff were frank with consumers. "We want to be transparent with what happened and how it's handled," he said.

Restaurants such as Old Ebbitt Grill have had to rebuild their oyster bars after the nationwide oyster scare 20 years ago that involved contamination by Vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium found in warm coastal areas such as the Gulf of Mexico.

These days, a consumer is as likely to contract vibriosis, the illness caused from bacteria in the Vibrio family, as he is to find a pearl, especially when he sticks to the old rule of eating oysters in the four months that end in "r."

But outbreaks do occur. In August, lab tests confirmed 113 illnesses across Massachusetts, Connecticut and Washington, or about double the 55 cases of previous years, according to public health reports. Some oyster beds were temporarily closed as a precaution.

Vibriosis can even be fatal to people with compromised immune systems, warned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in June. A healthy person who contracts it may have abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, headache, fever and chills. The illness is usually mild or moderate and runs its course in two to three days.

In addition to restaurants practicing vigilance, consumers can also protect themselves. Look for an opaque oyster, regardless of size. Oysters should look plump in the half shell, not decimated or lean.

Faint metallic notes are fine. If it tastes like a battery on the tongue, don't swallow it. Like any seafood, if it's served funky and not fragrant, don't eat it. A healthy oyster smells of sweetness and seawater.

And don't believe the myth that booze is medicinal. As cited on the FDA's Web page targeting raw oyster myths, "Alcohol may impair your good judgment, but it doesn't destroy harmful bacteria."

As far as whether oysters are an aphrodisiac or a hangover cure, the FDA claims they are not.

But the less practical among us may beg to differ. As Mr. Kurlansky reminds readers, "If you don't love life, you can't enjoy an oyster."

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart. First Published October 27, 2013 12:00 AM

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