Aw, Schucks: Westchester Really Loves Its Oyster Spots
The county market is cracked wide open.
The oyster bar at Little Drunken Chef
Saltaire Photo by Ken Stable; Little Drunken Chef photo by Michael Polito; Park 143 Photo by Mark Jessamy
Briny, slippery bivalves are resurfacing.
Four oyster-centric bars and restaurants have opened with a splash in Westchester in 2015, and other eateries are catching on to the current with raw bars and Happy Hour specials.
Oysters slide easily into more expansive food waves: the push for locally sourced ingredients, environmentally sustainable production and harvesting, and the average diner’s desire to grow in culinary sophistication.
Some of the most local—and locally loved—oysters are bluepoints sourced from the Long Island Sound in New York and Connecticut. Bluepoints generally possess satiny, almost-liquid meat, high brininess, and mild flavor.
Specializing in oysters from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, and Canada, Northeast Oyster Company opened in Mamaroneck in April. The laid-back bar offers three to seven of the freshest, best varieties each day, from plump, briny Duxbury mollusks to delicate Beausoleil bivalves with a sweet finish.
The raw bar station at Saltaire offers oysters from a dozen East Coast waterways
“It’s this perfect little food that comes locked in its own little case,” says owner Ray Schramm.
More than 90 percent of oysters are farmed—but sustain-ably so. Next door in Connecticut, the harvest about doubled between 2007 and 2010 and is still growing, according to a 2015 report by Baum+Whiteman, an international restaurant consultantcy. Chesapeake Bay’s harvest grew eightfold between 2006 and 2012.
Bivalves haven’t been so plentiful since before the 1950s, when parasites destroyed so many mid-Atlantic oyster beds that it was almost an epidemic.
No need to turn up your nose at farmed oysters, then, the way fish farms are avoided in favor of more environmentally sustainable, wild-caught swimmers. Farmed or wild, one of these little rascals can filter 50 gallons of water a day, improving water quality in oceans and estuaries.
So these potential saviors star in oyster-reef restoration projects nationwide. The Billion Oyster Project aims to restore one billion live oysters to the New York Harbor in the next 20 years.
Oysters appeared on menus nationwide almost 16 percent more in 2014 than in 2010, and they’re on more than 40 percent of the menus at fine-dining establishments, according to a Datassential survey reported on Nation’s Restaurant News.
Bob Iovino, 57, of Ardsley, settles into his regular corner barstool for oyster Happy Hour every Wednesday for his half-dozen raw bluepoints at Cedar Street Grill in
Dobbs Ferry. “They’re phenomenal: cold, no sand—and that’s big—and no shells,” says Iovino, pairing his treat with a Grey Goose martini, straight up with a twist. He adds, while dabbing on cocktail sauce: “I like hot, but I don’t want to overdo it. I want to taste the oysters.”
Tasting, savoring, and learning about oysters has parallels to the wine world. Different climates, water, and species affect the flavor and texture nuances, from the shell size and meatiness to the brine of the oyster liquor, which is trapped seawater. East Coast oysters tend to be more briny, light-bodied, and buttery. West Coast oysters are often creamier, more minerally, and sweeter.
Park 143's fried oysters
As oenophiles tend to do at wine tastings, bivalve sophisticates like to guess the oyster’s origin based on the shape, brine, and acidity, introducing the idea of “merroir,” similar to wine-related “terroir.”
Most raw oysters come with cocktail sauce, Tabasco sauce, lemon, and sometimes mignonette, a condiment of minced shallots, vinegar, and black pepper. Northeast Oyster Company’s mignonette uses Cava Rosé vinegar, a take on Champagne vinegar.
Lilly’s Oyster Bar, which opened in White Plains in April 2015, recommends its tasting special of two East Coast oysters, two West Coast, and a glass of crisp, dry, white wine.
“Definitely a white wine, a nice Chardonnay from California, or if you want to get a little bit funky, we suggest a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand,” says manager Rudy Rodriguez.
Lilly’s chef, Tyler Jacobs, looks for creaminess, texture, brine, and salt level when choosing what oysters to order for his restaurant, which can sell 300 oysters in a day. “People know it’s a delicacy,” Jacobs says. “We have a mature crowd with a trained palate.”
Behind the marble-topped raw bar at Saltaire Oyster Bar & Fish House in Port Chester, expert shuckers prepare raw, seasonal oysters from 12 East Coast waterways, as well as towers of seafood that include oysters for groups of two to six people. The former grain warehouse transformed into this pearl along the Byram River at the end of last summer.
Oysters act as platforms for chefs to show their skill and creativity. Bonnie Saran’s Little Drunken Chef, a tapas and oyster bar in Mount Kisco, open since July, serves colorful oyster ceviche shots. Still, the ice bed behind the gleaming copper bar showcases in the raw the best available oysters in the region, like sweet, complex Pemaquids from Maine’s Damariscotta River.
Purists prefer raw oysters, but cooking opens another dimension. Bronxville’s Park 143 Bistro & Fish fries bluepoints coated in corn flour, all-purpose flour, and wasabi powder, accompanied by chipotle mayonnaise and tartar sauce. “They’re crispy on the outside and melty inside,” says Chef Andrew Hopkins.
Wayne Chessler tacked on the “& Fish” to his 4-year-old restaurant in October, when he relaunched his eatery’s new, seafood-focused concept.
Chefs at Ruby’s Oyster Bar & Bistro in Rye pan-fry oysters, adding dollops of Champagne butter, in addition to the raw oysters they serve by the piece at market price and in double-tier and triple-tier seafood trays.
Amy Sowder is a NYC-based freelance food writer. She has yet to overcome her aversion to oysters’ texture, but it’s on her to-do list. Learn more at www.AmySowder.com.