Legend has it that oysters are the food of love. Scientific study has yet to confirm that, though science does note oysters’ high zinc content, which is one of testosterone’s key building blocks. (Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.)
Science does assert, however, that oysters are low in calories and packed with vitamins A and B12. But their flavor can’t be isolated, graphed and charted in a lab. These bivalve mollusks taste like the sea. That’s why so many people crave them. Here’s the lowdown from three oyster experts with restaurants on the keys.
Executive Chef, Crab & Fin
My first experience with oysters was smashing them open with a rock on Point Connet in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, and using them for bait. Culinarily, I started with a baked oyster. I can’t remember exactly what or where it was, but I do remember not being overly impressed. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either. It wasn’t until I started working at Crab & Fin 10 years ago that I developed a taste for them.
The most adventurous oyster I’ve ever eaten was a batch of monster Glidden Points from the Damariscotta River in Maine. I haven’t seen them like that since. These things were at least eight inches by five inches and 8 ounces or so, shucked. I remember slurping one down, whole, and I almost choked to death. Given the opportunity, I may or may not attempt it again!
If I had to pick my three favorite oysters, I would go with Massachusetts Duxburys, Rhode Island Dutch Islands and Sukoshi Kumas, a petite Kumamoto out of Humboldt Bay in California. I’m not a big fan of most west coast oysters because they are creamier and can be a bit more vegetal, but those particular oysters are nice and clean tasting, not as creamy, have a nice pop and good brine for a west coaster. I prefer oysters with a buttery, salty, meaty flavor like most of the oysters from the New England and Prince Edward Island areas.
As far as toppings go, I like to eat my oysters straight up naked. Just shuck ’em and suck ’em. We serve cocktail sauce with freshly grated horseradish, a black pepper-champagne mignonette and lemon with our oysters, as well as crackers and hot sauce upon request, but once you go adding all that stuff, you don’t even know you’re eating an oyster. Those powerful flavors can easily drown out all the nuances that a plain oyster with nothing on it has to offer.
Tips for shucking: Make sure you have a strong, sharp, pointed oyster knife, like the Providence knife or the R. Murphy Duxbury knife — my personal favorite. The sharper the knife, the less likely you’ll be to slip and cut yourself. When they’re blunt, you’ve got to push harder, and that’s when bad things happen. All you have to do is get the tip of the knife snugged in at the hinge and give a little twist, while prying upwards slightly. It helps to put the oyster on a towel that’s doubled over on one end, so you can put the oyster on it, effectively raising it a little higher off your work surface so you have a little room to push the handle down, giving the tip that slight upward pressure. Also, make sure to cut the abductor muscle from the shell, and check for any little broken pieces before eating or serving. If you’re not in a hurry, flipping the oyster upside down in the shell makes it look much prettier.
One of the coolest things about oysters is the variety that they come in. From the size to the color to the shape and so on. My favorite, as far as appearance goes, is the West Coast oyster. They have that nicely fluted shell and when you open them up they have a dark-colored mantle contrasting against what is typically a light colored body.
General Manager, Pop’s Sunset Grill
While I enjoy the salty brine of a fresh raw oyster, I also love baked oysters. And Chef Marcos at Pop’s does a great oyster nacho special on occasion. Imagine oysters battered and fried, then topped with pico de gallo, cotija cheese and queso fresco. Delish!
I love pairing oysters with Champagne. Chandon by The Bay, a blanc de blanc, is a favorite. A chardonnay or the Rodney Strong Sauvignon Blanc are also great choices. A bloody mary is another great choice if you aren’t in the mood for wine. It makes sense to me to pair oysters with a bloody mary. If you think about it, cocktail sauce is like the little sister to bloody mary mix.
I squeeze a lemon on the oyster and swallow it from the shell. Then I chase it with a cracker topped with a dollop of cocktail sauce and a hint of horseradish.
Executive Chef, Mar Vista
My first oyster-tasting experience was in culinary school. As a kid, I was a very picky eater. Going to Johnson & Wales opened me up to food I’d never experienced before. We were learning about shellfish, and part of that experience was learning how to open an oyster. After the first bite I fell in love with them.
I love grilled oysters with a simple compound butter created with garlic, lemon, herbs and cheeses. My second favorite way to eat oysters is a twist on a Rockefeller. I shuck the oysters first and let them sit in buttermilk with a couple dashes of hot sauce. Then I make creamed spinach with some of Gamble Creek Farms Organic spinach grown here in Manatee County. Stuffing that back in the oyster, I take the oyster meat and dredge it in a mix of cornmeal and seasoned flour and fry them for 30 seconds. Then I place the fried oyster back in the shell. The creaminess of the spinach and the texture from the fried oyster is a great pairing.
A brute sparkling wine like Champagne goes great with oysters. The Longboat Light Lager from Motorworks is also great — a light and refreshing beer. And I love our Lola Chardonnay or rosé with oysters.
The first step to eating an oyster is to take a cocktail knife and make sure the abductor muscle is loosened from the oyster shell. From there, place your toppings — but only a little so you don’t mask the flavor of the raw oyster. Next, pick up the oyster, without losing the liquid, which is the best part. Then place it to your lips and slurp it back. I typically like to take one or two chews into the oyster and then swallow.
Simple math has kept this Longboat Key landmark thriving for more than 30 years. The equation? Spectacular waterfront views + flopping fresh seafood = the perfect Florida-style dining experience. And the oysters? They come two ways — raw and baked. Grab something crisp to sip and then sit, chill and slurp. Repeat a dozen times.
Mar Vista’s been a fixture for decades on the tip of north Longboat Key on Sarasota Bay. Buttonwood trees shade a constellation of outdoor tables; inside, the recently renovated bar is bustling with island camaraderie. And did someone say oysters? Mar Vista only offers the righteously raw variety. According to Seth Kondor, the restaurant’s executive chef, “We’re very selective about where we buy our oysters. Our vendors buy directly from the oyster farmer; we only order what we need for the time of year.” When you indulge in oysters at Mar Vista, you can be assured they’re as fresh as a Gulf of Mexico sunrise.
Sidewalk dining at Crab & Fin on St. Armands Circle combines the pleasures of people-watching, stargazing and brasserie-style gourmandizing. And nothing beats a starry night feast of oysters on the half shell. So, raise a refreshing glass of crisp white wine or a cold brew (or a Pellegrino with fresh lime and cranberry juice — Chef Troy Torman’s beverage of choice) and commence your briny journey. Where to start? Chef Torman recommends the grand oyster tasting. “That lets you taste all the differences,” he says. “Our menu typically has at least three types of oysters. I source our oysters from all over North America, from Alaska and British Columbia down to Virginia, and all the way up the east coast into Canada.”
With three bars, a Tiki hangout, indoor and outdoor dining, two kitchens, a gift shop and live entertainment stages, Pop’s is a hopping, bopping spot for oyster tasting. Pop’s serves them up raw and also offers its own version of Oysters Rockefeller — baked and topped with creamy spinach, Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs. Stephanie Brown, general manager, says that the oysters hail from a variety of places depending on the time of year. Blue Points from Long Island and oysters from Virginia are their top sources. And don’t miss Chef Marcos’ occasional oyster nachos dish.
When a restaurant has “oyster” in its name, you know you can’t go wrong. Baked oysters are their specialty (with a multitude of toppings), but they also have a raw bar. Don’t miss their Big G’s Oyster Happy Hour deal (3-6 p.m. daily) where raw or steamed oysters go for a buck a piece per dozen. Flout tradition and go for one of SKOB’s signature drinks, including a lavender-infused mojito, pear spritz (Absolut Pear and elderflower, club soda, topped with prosecco) or their version of a killer bloody mary called I Only Brunch with Mary.
Perfect pairings: Oysters and libations
Elevate your oyster experience with these libations.
Champagne and sparkling wines: Bottles of bubbly complement oysters’ briny taste. Their crisp acidity cleanses the palate between bites. Consider brut or extra brut styles for a perfect pairing.
White wine: Light, crisp white wines enhance oysters’ delicate flavor. Look for wines with high acidity and citrus notes. sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, and muscadet are smart choices.
Craft beers: Light, refreshing craft beers like pilsners, lagers, or wheat brews go great with oysters. Maltiness cuts through oysters’ sometimes overpowering richness.
Mineral Water: Sparkling or still mineral water cleanses the palate and lets the natural flavors of the oysters come through.
Marty Fugate is a writer, cartoonist and voiceover actor whose passions include art, architecture, performance, film, literature, politics and technology. As a freelance writer, he contributes to a variety of area publications, including the Observer, Sarasota Magazine and The Herald Tribune. His fiction includes sketch comedy, short stories and screenplays. “Cosmic Debris,” his latest anthology of short stories, is available on Amazon.
Su Byron has worked in the regional arts and cultural world for the past 25 years as a writer, an editor, and a public relations and marketing specialist. For 12 of those years, she was the co-publisher of the Sarasota Arts Review, a monthly arts and entertainment newspaper. Su is a freelance writer whose regular columns and articles appear in a host of regional and national publications.