Shell Game

Eating up Louisiana oysters in New Orleans and along the state's Oyster Trail. 

When eating your way through Louisiana, the world becomes your oyster. Served at shuck shacks as well as gilded New Orleans restaurants, oysters are on the menu everywhere. And for good reason: They’re plentiful and affordable, making them as much a part of Louisiana's culinary culture as crawfish.  

“Seventy percent of oysters harvested in the U.S. are from the Gulf with the majority coming from Louisiana waters, ” said Charlie Whinham, public information officer at Louisiana Tourism. 

So what’s the difference between Louisiana oysters and others varieties that vie for attention on the raw bar? It’s all about the oyster’s terroir — where and how the oyster is farmed — and the environmental factors, notably the Gulf Coast’s warm waters. Louisiana Gulf oysters tend to be large and tender with a mild flavor due to the freshwater influence from the Mississippi River. 

While wild harvested oysters appear on the market, the most popular varieties are those commercially bottom-farmed and dredged or cage-farmed. These oysters are plump with a creamier texture, making them a favorite among chefs for baking, charbroiling, or eating raw. 

To sample the difference, consider traveling the Louisiana Oyster Trail. Spawned in 2012, the Oyster Trail zigzags through Jefferson Parrish spotlighting an eclectic collection of more than 20 restaurants stretching from Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River to the Gulf. Each location is easy to find; look for the 3-foot-tall oyster sculpture displayed at each restaurant, designating it as an official trail stop. 

Stand out cities along the trail include Metairie, Gretna, Grand Isle, and of course, New Orleans, whose northwestern section of the city is within Jefferson Parrish. New Orleans is the epicenter for Louisiana oysters. Restaurateurs for generations have venerated oysters by means of frying, baking, and chargrilling.

One such restaurateur is Chef Ryan Prewitt, named James Beard 2014 Best Chef in the South. His New Orleans restaurant, Pêche, also garnered the James Beard pick for 2014 Best New Restaurant in America. While it’s a small detour off the Oyster Trail, Pêche specializes in Louisiana seafood, and oysters are stars on the menu. 

“We source only Gulf oysters. Primarily offering Grand Isle caged-raised and bottom-dredged oysters, which typically possess a creamy mineral flavor, as opposed to a salty brininess,” said Prewitt. The restaurant staff can shuck between 7,000 and 8,000 oysters weekly.  “Here, we concentrate on raw oysters because you can taste all the differences in flavor,” Prewitt said. “Raw on the half shell is the most exciting way to eat an oyster.” 

Slurping off the shell with or without a splash of Tabasco sauce isn’t for everyone. No worries. Consider the oyster options: Acme Oyster House is famous for chargrilled oysters sauced with herb butter, while overstuffed oyster po-boys are part of the menu at Desire Oyster Bar that’s inside the Royal Sonesta Hotel, another quality detour from the official trail. 

Before You Go

Information about Louisiana's Oyster Trail is available at www.visitjeffersonparish.com/restaurants/oyster-trail. Details on the upcoming oyster festival in New Orleans are at http://nolaoysterfest.org. Visitor information for New Orleans is at www.neworleans.com, and contact Antoine's (AAA Three Diamonds) at www.antoines.com.

 

Photo, right: The renowned Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine's restaurant. (Peter A. Mayer)

Photo, top: Shuckers are busy at the raw bar inside Peche restaurant (Link Restaurant Group)

Million-dollar bivalve

Then there are Oysters Rockefeller, the ultimate indulgence that’s best enjoyed at its birthplace, Antoine’s. While the restaurant isn’t named as part of the Oyster Trail, Antoine’s is well known among those who respect French Creole cuisine.

Established by Antoine Alciatore in 1840, its most famous oyster dish debuted in 1899. Rick Blount is fifth-generation proprietor and great-grandson of Jules, Antoine’s son. Blount recounted how his great-grandfather developed its signature dish. 

He said Jules, a chef, was playing with Bourguignonne, the classic sauce used for escargot that includes butter, garlic, and parsley. 

“He started integrating the normal stuff he had in the kitchen into the sauce — parsley, green onions, and celery. Not spinach. Spinach isn’t in the recipe. Jules discovered all those vegetables tighten the sauce, which he spooned over escargot before they were baked. During an escargot shortage, Jules was inspired to use the sauce on oysters on the half shell and bake them like the escargot. It caught on,” Blount said. 

The sauced, baked oysters were a hit, but the dish needed a name. Jules dubbed it Oyster Rockefeller. 

“Jules named Oysters Rockefeller originally as a joke because it was decadently rich, just like the richest man in the United States,” said Blount. “The name stuck, not to the amusement of Rockefeller. When my cousin meet Winthrop Rockefeller, he said his grandfather, J.D. (John D. Rockefeller), was incensed that anyone would name a food after him.” 

Oysters Rockefeller was indeed a masterpiece, but not considered Jules’ crowning culinary achievement; he was the first restaurateur to bake oysters. Until Oysters Rockefeller made its debut, the general preparations for oysters were either to serve them fried, stewed, or on the half shell. 

Antoine’s menu today offers several styles of baked oysters, including Oysters Bienville — topped with an mélange of shrimp, bacon, and wine — and Oysters Thermidor, laced with bacon and tomato sauce. These, along with its venerated Oysters Rockefeller, are served during lunch or dinner, and in Antoine’s Hermes Bar.

When ordering the Rockefeller, look for your postcard, which is usually delivered with each order. Antoine’s chefs kept a count on how many orders of Rockefeller have been made since that first plate was baked and served by Jules. The official tally card sports a vintage photograph of Jules tableside with your order number. To date, that number is more than 4.6 million.  

Louisiana oysters are available year-round, which is good news for oyster fans. Note the New Orleans Oyster Festival is coming up, June 2 and 3. Otherwise arrive anytime and bring your appetite. 

Suzanne Corbett is a contributor and food historian from St. Louis, Mo. 

Oyster Thermidor

 

To make this recipe (courtesy of Antoine's restaurant in New Orleans), you will need:

• 3 dozen oysters on the half shell

• 3 cups cocktail sauce

• 3 dozen two-inch strips of bacon

Place the oysters in a preheated 400-degree oven and bake until their edges begin to curl. Remove from oven and cover with coctail sauce. Top each oyster with a piece of bacon and return to the oven to cook for five to seven minutes more.

 

Photo: Oyster Thermidor at Antoine's restaurant. (Peter A. Mayer)

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