By Jim Trotman | Outer Banks Voice on April 6, 2017
We understand some people are squeamish when it comes to raw oysters. That’s fine, you can mosey on. To some of us, though, a raw oyster holds much sensual potential.
There’s a satisfying “kla-pop” when you have the knifepoint at just the correct angle and apply just enough firm, turning pressure to crack the hinge joint. A slight wiggle gets the blade inside, then a shimmy along the inside of the flatter, upper shell severs the adductor muscle.
The lid shell is flipped away, and you behold the pale, fleshy prey within, sitting there in its briny bath, a faint whiff of the ocean ascending to the nostrils, setting up the taste buds for the thrill to come.
Such is the charm of the raw oyster.
While shucking for yourself and friends is a worthy endeavor, it is much more convenient and safe for your hands to have someone else do the work. In the Outer Banks and nearby, we are blessed with the availability of fresh oysters and places that serve them.
Two words, Oyster Bar, bring a smile to the face of any lover of those succulent bivalves. But a trend is taking shape, and we believe it is a good one. Here, both Blue Water in Pirate’s Cove and Coastal Provisions in Southern Shores have taken on the cause of offering not one, not two, but several distinct varieties of oysters for their customers. And the customers are enjoying it.
Recently. two members of the Raw Oyster Explorer Task Force of the Voice checked in at Coastal Provisions to investigate the matter. We were met by Chef/Proprietor & Sommelier Daniel Lewis, who in turn submerged us in a tour de force of all things oyster. We surrendered to the charm, and like good little oysters, we let it all wash over us.
Lewis has a generous smile, cat-like moves and a rapid speaking style that reveals that he is, like many of us, not from around these parts. Originally from upstate New York, Lewis somehow made it all the way through culinary school and to his first job in Atlanta before eating his first raw oyster.
After some time working with specialty food chains, Dan Lewis and his partner Scott Foster founded their market, Coastal Provisions, here in 2006. In the time since, their market expanded into a café restaurant serving lunch and dinner. In turn, they added two other locations in Duck, Coastal Cantina and Cravings Steak & Seafood, each with a different concept.
Four years ago, they expanded the Southern Shores location to include an oyster bar. Wanting to distinguish it from the others, Lewis endeavored to source a variety.
“Everybody was serving just one oyster, the James River,” he said. “I used to have just one North Carolina oyster and now I have six.”
Virginia oyster aquaculture is well established, and distribution systems were at that point dominant. Now, oyster farming in North Carolina is growing at a good clip, with better distribution increasing by the day. This means restaurants can source oysters even closer to home.
Indeed, the tasty mollusk now has top billing at Lewis’s establishment. The name of the Southern Shores Crossing location is now Coastal Provisions Oyster Bar and Wine Bar Café.
A chance meeting with author Rowan Jacobsen at the Carolina Coastal Federation’s Oyster Summit in Raleigh in 2014 gave rise to a wine dinner celebrating the oyster that Lewis hosted. It featured Jacobsen and his oyster connoisseur presentation. Local waterman Joey Daniels took them to area oyster farming operations, after which Jacobsen proclaimed, “The Outer Banks is primed to be the Napa Valley of oysters!”
And so, we took up a spot at one of the high tables that fill the area between the bar and a deli case which, on that day, held iced trays of 14, yes, 14 different oysters. Each batch came from a different locale and sported intriguing names such as Carolina Pearl, Pamlico Bounty, Choptank Sweets and Nanadua Salts.
Several were from farming operations nearby in either North Carolina or Virginia. But also on hand were the Malpeque from Prince Edward Island off Nova Scotia, Canada, the hearty Belon from Maine, and representing Asia, (and now the U.S. West Coast) the Kumamoto. And we were going to get to try a lot of them.
As we began to work our way around our platters, Lewis brought forth a flight of crisp white wines. Being a certified sommelier, he chose well. We proceeded through a Muscadet, which wasn’t “musky” at all, to a Picpoul de Pinet, a name we will surely use to impress someone at a party at some later date, a crisp Chablis and a lovely Sauvignon Blanc. Each wine brought a counterpoint to the variously briny aspects of the individual oysters, but with four wines, and a dozen or so oysters, we’d go crazy trying to diagram it all.
As we began, Lewis offered suggestions in proper oyster tasting etiquette. “You should start by just taking a sip of the liquor first, get a sense of the brininess.” Also, we were reminded it is good etiquette to turn empty shells over on the platter.
Starting from the 12 o’clock position on our iced platters, we began with the smallish, creamy and bright-tasting Kumamoto, almost “cute” with a black velvet lining. The taste is mild and has notes of salted cucumber.
As we proceeded along clockwise, we entered the realm of the Crassostrea Virginica, the oyster native to the eastern seaboard and Gulf of Mexico coast of North America. Though all are the same species, they vary by degrees in saltiness and taste and texture. The flavor can be mild or sharp, creamy or of an intense mineral nature.
The distinguishing qualities arise from their respective environments, the waters and the foods on which they feed. Sometimes the names help. For example, one can reasonably expect a Hatteras Salt oyster to be brinier than a Choptank Sweet. But many times, only the farming operation name or specific location is the clue you get, so ask the host. They will have sampled and can steer you along.
The “R” month idea is largely a myth at this point. Oysters may generally be at their plumpest in November and December, but they can be eaten year-round.
Oysters that are farmed, notably the triploid, non-reproducing ones, are more consistently voluminous throughout the year.There is no difference in taste between farmed and wild-harvested oysters. The taste comes from the water they are in, not by how they got there.
Oysters keep the waters clean. Just as clean water makes good oysters, good oysters make clean water by their filtering of the algae they use as food. An adult oyster can filter and clean up to 50 gallons of water per day. They remove dirt and nitrogen pollution as well.
Cultivation improves the odds for the oysters by securing their spawning. Growing oysters are contained in bags or cage devices that keep out predators and they are easier to harvest. The more oysters in the water, the better, as they act as a foundation for the whole ecosystem.
Desired regional characteristics can be maintained in cultivating breed stock.
We arrive at our next to last oyster on the outer rim of our platters, the Malpeque. These beauties made Prince Edward Island famous for oysters. At a Paris exposition in 1900, they were awarded the title of world’s best. We found it pleasing, and milder, than its southern cousins. At last we came to the broad Belon in the center of our plates.
Also known as the European Flat Oyster, the species originated in France and was brought to the Maine coast decades ago where it adapted to the cold waters. However, it is difficult to cultivate. They are now almost non-existent in France, and only 5,000 per year are now harvested. Lewis sells these normally by the half-dozen.
This flesh is larger than the Virginicas and is two-tone, with a light brown band encompassing a pale center. As we tip to taste the liquor, Lewis says, “This isn’t an oyster for amateurs.” He’s right. We both enjoyed them, but they are assertive. The flavor is pronounced and grabs the taste buds with a metallic, almost “copper penny” finish.
Just as we thought we were winding down, Lewis emerged from the kitchen with chilled platters bearing a quartet of “special occasion” oysters. These imaginative toppings for raw oysters were not something we had encountered before. We had just tripped over the Mignonette and cocktail sauce line and landed flat in an entirely different tide pool.
Anchoring the right end was the mighty Belon, bathed in ponzu, decked out in Wakame seaweed and sporting a plump light orange squiggle of sea urchin. Taking on this preparation was a heady experience. Having just taken on the unadorned version, the Belon shone brighter with these added elements, which ameliorated the sharpness of before.
This was followed with three half shells with iced toppers. Lewis freezes the components, grates them while frozen and stores them in self-chilling containers for ready use. These are then formed over fresh-shucked raw oysters.
One was topped with lemongrass ice and a petal of Thai basil, another with picked ginger ice with a scallion slice and three little beads that release balsamic vinegar (or in some cases soy sauce) on the tongue. Kim chi ice decorated the last one. These Asian flavorings expanded our imagination as to what can be done with oysters and ice.
“Because of the Asian flavors and the slight heat, this is one of the things I love to pair with sparkling sake,” said Lewis as readied our palate.
We have not been fans of classic, warmed sake, but then we have never chilled, bubbly sake before. Now you can count us in. Crisp, bright and refreshing with a low alcohol level, the Mio Sparkling Sake was a complement to the intense flavors of the ices.
If your interest is piqued, the oyster bar awaits. Even better, Wednesdays at Coastal Provisions is half-price oyster day. With the weather getting warmer, the outdoor seating area is going to get busy and could be the perfect spot for a splash and a slurp.
The Raw Story
Coastal Provisions Oyster Bar and Wine Bar Café
1 Ocean Blvd.
Southern Shores, NC
Prices generally range from about $18 to $36 a dozen