There is no better time than New Year’s for an outrageous raw bar. Something about cracking open a chilly tray of oysters with their briny, over-the-top freshness seems to pair with a brand new year like nothing else. We asked Chef Jeremy Sewall who heads the famously fresh Island Creek Oyster Bar and now brand new Row 34 in Boston to teach us a thing or two about one of the chicest shells in the sea in the lead up to the last night of 2013. Learn the difference between an East and West Coast oyster, how to shuck them and the best way to serve (plated in snow!)
One of the East Coast’s top farms, Island Creek in Massachusetts, is joining with one our California favorites, Hog Island, for an exclusive package of one dozen oysters from each coast. Your shellfish arrive within 24 hours of being pulled from the ocean(s) and make for one of the coolest ways to close the year we can think of. Order and serve with all the accoutrements or – as Chef Jeremy suggests – eat them straight from the kitchen sink with a bottle of champagne!
The Chalkboard Mag: What is the difference between an East and West Coast oyster?
Chef Jeremy Sewall: East Coast oysters tend to be brinier and larger than their West Coast counterparts. East Coast are also all the same species, but have different appearances and tastes depending on where they are grown. West coast are usually smaller and sweeter, and there are few different varieties.
TCM: What about the Hog Island (California) and Island Creek (Massachusetts) tasting notes especially?
JS: Hog Island: sweet and fruity with limited salt and you get all these flavors at once. They have wonderful notes of cucumber, kale and melon with a significant walnut and mineral undertone that adds complexity and sets them apart from the rest.
Island Creek: a briny start that tastes like the sea and a flavor profile of salty, then buttery and mossy, then sweet (if you’re lucky).
TCM: Must have accoutrements?
JS: We liken oysters to grapes: The end product is going to taste a lot like the environment its grown in. Skip Bennett, founder of Island Creek Oysters, coined the term merroir. Because of that, you don’t want to mask the flavor of the oyster too much, because you want to taste the difference between those East Coast and West Coast flavors. But hey, we don’t judge – if you love cocktail sauce, a dollop will do!
I usually like my oysters plain or with a squeeze of lemon, but it’s nice to mix it up with some mignonette. Simply, mix equal parts white wine and champagne vinegar, a bit of minced shallot, and a couple good grinds of black pepper.
TCM: What would you say is the perfect pairing?
JS: At our new restaurant, Row 34, we’re really focusing on pairing the oysters with craft beers. While all oysters taste different, for the brinier East Coast oyster, like an Island Creek, and a delicious porter, like the Baltique Porter from Les Trois Mousuetaires, works perfectly. Unlike typical porters, this Baltic porter is brewed in the traditional style as a bottom-fermenting lager. The result is a luxuriously round, but robust, black beer with a mild bitterness.
For a sweeter, fruitier West Coast oyster, something with high acidity to compliment the flavors of a Hog Island works great. I would recommend pairing a gueuze – a Belgian beer – with them. One of my personal favorites would be the Oude Gueuze from Tilquin. Who needs mignonette when you have a delicious gueuze!
And generally, a good all encompassing pairing is a clean, crisp pilsner. Try the Edelherb pils from Kulmbacher in Germany. It’s fun to get a few different beers and try them out – see what fits your tastes and what you like best.
TCM: How to serve?
JS: A platter filled with ice is perfect to plate oysters onto – but if you live in a snowy climate, you can scoop some fresh powder from outside onto a serving dish for a festive touch.
TCM: Any great shucking tips? This has to be one of the trickiest skills in the kitchen.
JS: It’s hard to tell someone how to shuck. The best way to learn is to open as many oysters as you can, but here are a few tips to get you started:
Always use a towel to hold the oyster, this gives you a better grip and will prevent injuries. Wrap it around the curved edge so that the hinge is exposed.
Once you have the tip of the knife in the hinge, twist back and forth firmly until it gives, then rotate your knife 90 degrees to pop the top shell off the bottom.
Keep the oyster as level as you can – the liquid in the shell is precious and flavorful.
Carefully scrape the top shell to loosen the meat, remove the top shell and then slide the knife under the oyster to detach the connective muscle.
Place on ice and serve immediately.
TCM: The perfect oyster set-up for late New Year’s Eve is…
JS: I like to follow in the footsteps of my buddy and business partner Skip Bennett, who founded Island Creek Oysters. Just put the bag in your kitchen sink, have your loved ones standing around and open a bottle of nice champagne.