Each Friday in October we’ll be featuring a different oyster bar operated by one of our Louisiana Cookin’ Chefs to Watch. This week, our Oyster Happy Hour features Chef Melissa Martin (CTW-’15) of the Mosquito Supper Club and Curious Oyster Bar Co. in New Orleans.
Photos: Randy Schmidt
When I put an oyster on my menu, I’ve usually visited the farm, met the farmer, and had a first-hand experience with the product. I want to share my first-hand experiences with diners at the Curious Oyster Co.
The oyster bar’s name comes from Alice in Wonderland. The curious oysters in the story are eaten by the Walrus and the Carpenter. My favorite oyster bar in the world is the Walrus and the Carpenter in Seattle. It’s a female owned business, and I love seeing that perspective in the style of the restaurant and its service. Our name is a fun way to connect with this oyster outpost on the West Coast.
I’ve been around oysters for most of my life. My grandfather was an oyster fishermen with leases in Cocodrie, Louisiana. He would go out in a boat with a tong and pull the oysters up off the bottom and into the boat. He’d rake his oysters too, flattening and moving the oysters around with a giant tool. You’d spend all day on the water; it’s not much deeper than a few feet and you can see oysters everywhere.
Classic oyster farming is very much like traditional land-farming: your soil is the bottom, and you rake and till your underwater field until harvest time. Oysters excite me for this very reason: each year your oyster crop can be different. A change in water temperature, salinity, the amount of rain, all of that impacts oyster flavor. There are some characteristics that are always present — like the earthiness of Gulf oysters — but much can change from year to year.
Raw oysters sometimes frighten people. They worry about refrigeration and handling. I find that sort of funny. Murder Point oysters, which are some of the best in the US, spend a ton of time outside of the water. The Murder Point fishermen pull their cages out of the water at night to kill anything growing on the shells. This keeps the barnacles and sea creatures from settling on the Murder Points and keeps the oysters themselves from growing together. I hope people realize that if these oysters can sit out all night for months, they can be safely shipped around the South and eaten a few days after they leave the water.
At Murder Point they turn their oysters, chipping the edges of the shell. This forces the oysters to grow deep cups instead of wide, flat cups. A deeper cup makes for a tastier, more flavorful oyster. The deeper cup also keeps more of the oyster’s liquor in the shell for eating. My favorite oyster condiment is oyster liquor; I don’t really mess with cocktail sauce or other accompaniments.
I’d love to have an oyster bar that closes in the Summer. Summers are slow and the product quality varies because it’s oyster breeding season. During breeding season, the oysters put all of their energy into spawning. That makes for smaller, weaker, and occasionally less tasty oysters. They’re spent, and it shows when you pop open the shell. The traditional “don’t east oysters in the Summer” saying is because of breeding season, not because of anything unsafe about warm weather and oysters.
Summer is also a good time to rest your restaurant. Casamento’s oyster house on Magazine Street has it right.