Love on the half-shell

Two new oyster bars signal that bivalves are booming in the Seacoast

Shimmy, slide, twist, and then pop open the shell. Add a drop of Tabasco, a squeeze of lemon, and a dollop of horseradish to finish it off. Take a bite. Then another. All that work and the slimy, delicious oyster is gone — and it’s time to start again.

Once primarily found in high-end restaurants, oysters are mainstream now, and, like craft beer and artisanal spirits, they’re booming. Around the Seacoast, restaurants like Jumpin’ Jays Fish Café in Portsmouth, Brine in Newburyport, Mass., and Anneke Jans in Kittery, Maine, offer popular buck-a-shuck nights, and more oyster-focused restaurants are on the way to Portsmouth. Boston’s Row 34 oyster bar is set to open a new location in Portwalk Place in Portsmouth this spring, and chef Matt Louis, co-owner of Moxy in Portsmouth and a recent James Beard Award semi-finalist, is set to open the Franklin House Oyster Bar, with restaurateur Jay McSharry.

Shellfish will be the main attraction at the restaurant, which Louis describes as “oyster forward.”

“Ideally, depending on availability, we’ll have four (oyster varieties) from New Hampshire, and two each from Maine, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. We’ll also have four from the West Coast,” he says.

FOOD_oysters_CK4Chef Matt Louis displays some fresh shellfish.

Why are oysters so popular in the Seacoast? Louis equates it with the local food movement.

“People are getting more and more in tune with where their food comes from. They’re attending farmers markets, buying their animals locally, participating in CSA programs — they are getting involved,” Louis says. Great Bay is home to nine local oyster farms, including Cedar Point Shellfish, from which Louis has already pre-bought 10,000 oysters.

Many of these farms are small companies run by a handful of people. Dover Point Oyster is especially tiny, operated by just one man, Christopher Phillips. Growing up, Phillips spent time oystering for fun in Virginia near the Chesapeake Bay. In 2012, looking for a way to get outside and away from his stuffy office, Phillips started Dover Point Oyster. He leases three acres of space near Scammell Bridge on Route 4.

Farming oysters is difficult and time-consuming, according to Phillips. “The biggest challenge for me is managing the farm itself. Staying on top of all the gear in the water is a lot more hands-on than I had originally anticipated,” he says.

Raising and growing an oyster farm is all about sorting. Phillips brings in seeds, baby oysters about the size of a grain of sand, or seedlings, about the size of a fingernail, and starts raising them. “We have many different bags of oysters. All are different sizes. We sort them as they grow. The bigger the oyster gets, the bigger a bag it should be in. When they are market size, between two to three inches, 100 oysters will fit in a bag,” Phillips says.

FOOD_oysters_CK2Oysters ready for shucking.

He sells his oysters to a distributor in Kittery, who handles the rest from there. As a small operation, he says it wouldn’t be viable for him to travel all over New England hawking oysters from restaurant to restaurant.

Supporting local business isn’t the only reason people are turning to oysters. The ways we enjoy our meals are evolving as well, according to Louis.

“Dining as a whole is getting a lot more casual, maybe since the economy shifted gears. Oyster bars fit into that because you can have fun and get good food without having to be in a high-end formal dining atmosphere,” Louis says.

Though both men enjoy Great Bay’s oysters, they differ in how they eat the barnacled beauties. Louis favors them raw and naked of any tinctures; Phillips prefers them baked. No matter how you enjoy them, there are a few simple things you should be aware of before ordering a dozen on buck-a-shuck night.

Best by: According to Louis, the freshness of the oyster is its most important quality. “It should have notes of ocean and sea air. If it doesn’t, you don’t want to eat it,” he says.

East vs. west: Though each oyster’s taste can change over the course of the season and waters, each region’s oysters have some typical characteristics. “Typically, East Coast oysters are a little bit narrower, in terms of flavor profile. They’ll have notes of minerals, steel, and cold-water characteristics. Think cold rocks,” says Louis. “West Coast varieties will taste fruitier, creamier, and sweeter, because the water is warmer.”

Taste test: Much like tasting coffee, wine, and craft beers, focus on the flavor profiles of an oyster. Take in the oyster with its salty liquid and give it a few good chews, but not much more than that.

Myriad toppings: Anything you add to a raw oyster shouldn’t overpower its natural taste — it should only complement and enhance. The usual suspects are malt vinegar, hot sauce, lemon, and horseradish. Louis suggests diners go outside their comfort zone by adding “pickled ginger, cucumber, smoked sea salt, or even fruity sorbets.”