"He first selected the smallest one ... and then bowed his head as though he were saying grace. Opening his mouth very wide, he struggled for a moment, after which all was over. I shall never forget the comic look of despair he cast upon the other five over-occupied shells. I asked him how he felt. 'Profoundly grateful,' he said, 'as if I had swallowed a small baby.'"
"As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans."
Men have long waxed poetic about the oyster, and why not? It's one of the few foods we eat while it's still alive, and we eat the entire creature, entrails and all. Oysters don't hunt; they wait for the ocean currents to bring food. They produce objects we wear as jewelry, and research has confirmed they possess aphrodisiacal properties.
Oh yeah, and when plucked from the ocean in its prime, an oyster -- delicate, plump and ever so slimy -- will taste of briny sea water and rich butter and will sensually melt on your tongue.
With oyster season officially beginning on November 1 (though, as some will argue, that date is completely arbitrary), I've been thinking about fresh, raw bivalves for weeks now. I got the scoop on the upcoming season from local oyster experts and chatted with a few chefs and restaurateurs to find out where you can get fresh oysters straight from our gulf waters.
"The prognosis for our season is incredible because of all the fresh water," says Tom Tollett, chef and owner of Tommy's Restaurant and Oyster Bar and an activist with the Galveston Bay Foundation. Tollett and others are excited about the large amount of rain that's fallen so far this year -- it's been flushing water into the gulf from as far north as Dallas -- because it should contribute to a stellar oyster season.
The oyster crop is still not back to where it was before the droughts of 2010 and 2011, when the salinity in the gulf reached record levels and predators that thrive in saltier conditions made our bays their home. Still, Tollett and his fellow chefs are optimistic about the season as a whole, which lasts until April 30.
"I hear they're supposed to be good this year," local fishmonger PJ Stoops says, though he admits he's not as in tune with what's happening in oyster reefs as he was when he sold gulf bycatch at Louisiana Foods. "They'll taste good, but the harvest might not be much of anything. Let's wait until February and talk about how good they are."
Stoops says that while the season officially begins on November 1, the date is arbitrary, and the quality and availability of oysters depend largely upon the weather and rainfall. If the water stays too warm past November 1, the early harvests will be no good, while a cooler-than-average September can mean the season will peak in November.
"These days there aren't many things that have to be seasonal," Stoops says. "But oysters do."
A word that has come up frequently during gulf oyster season in the past several years is "appellation," which refers to where, specifically, the oysters come from in the bay. In the past, there was no such thing as "gulf oysters," as that title was too broad. Recently, there's been a revival of "gulf appellation oysters," which come from specific reefs with names like "Pepper Grove," "Possum Pass" or "Todd's Dump." Appellation oysters are so popular, in fact, that Tommy's has partnered with the Galveston Bay Foundation for the past several years to host gulf appellation oyster tastings.
Before you assume that an oyster tasting sounds boring and redundant, talk to any oyster aficionado, who will tell you that the bivalves have a sense of "merroir," much like wine has a terroir. Merroir refers to the differences in flavor, texture and appearance among oysters from different reefs. Sometimes the differences are so pronounced that you can detect unique flavor profiles in specimens from different ends of the same reef.
"For the past 100 years, we've basically not really tagged oysters with appellations," Tollett explains. "That's just been in the last few years. We would like to have more oysters coming from these appellations, because it gives them more credibility."
That's interesting and all, but why would the humble oyster need more credibility?
Easy, says Tollett: "They're our keystone species in the bay."
He explains that an oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day, which helps keep the oceans clean. The cleaner the water in the bay is to begin with, the cleaner our oysters will be. And if our oysters are happy and healthy, so are our shrimp and fish. Tollett believes that drawing attention to the uniqueness of oysters can help the gulf as a whole. He even has a motto to get his point across:
"Eating oysters and recycling shells is a tasty way to save the bay."
So where can you get the fresh, plump gulf oysters when commercial oystermen start hauling them in on November 1? Here are just a few places in town that either have gulf oysters on the menu now or will be serving them later in the season.
Oh, and for the record, there's no truth to the old adage that you can eat oysters only during months that contain an "r" (meaning, don't touch 'em in May, June, July or August). That came from the pre-refrigeration days when there was no way to keep oysters cool after harvesting during the hot summer months. It is true, however, that oysters are generally tastier and fatter when harvested in the winter or spring, when the water in which they live is cooler.
Liberty Kitchen Bar and Oysterette The newest addition to the Liberty Kitchen, BRC Gastropub and Petite Sweets family is open for business and doing oysters in a big way. Chef Travis Lenig explains that they get oysters from all over -- Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Nova Scotia, British Columbia and, of course, our local waters.
"We get them from the gulf year-round," Lenig says. "Sometimes they're not great, but the majority of the time they're good. They're just getting bigger now. The water is getting cooler and they're eating more, so they're growing."
The prices change according to the market, but right now, Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar, the Oysterette's sister, has Gulf of Mexico oysters on the menu for $14.50 per dozen.
Goode Company Seafood Over at Goode Co., oysters can be found on tables year-round, and that includes our own Galveston Bay bivalves. A manager explains that later in the season, Goode Co. will start getting oysters from other coastal bays, and at that point will begin to feature oysters by appellation. For now, a dozen oysters from Galveston Bay at Goode Co. will set you back $13.95.
Gilhooley's The amiable folks over at Gilhooley's in Dickinson tell us they get Galveston Bay oysters from the distributor Misho's Oyster Company in San Leon. The owner, Misho Ivic, picks out the best oysters to send to Gilhooley's, where they are served up fresh in a variety of ways (think smoked, grilled, baked or raw).
Desiree Mack, the manager at Gilhooley's, says oyster prices have been going up every year, but for now, they're some of the cheapest (and best) in Texas at $9.50 per dozen.
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Eleven XI "We won't serve gulf oysters during the hot months," Eleven XI general manager Joe Welborn explains. "We just won't serve oysters that have been steamed open and then rubber-banded."
As of this moment, it's still "the hot months," but Welborn says he looks forward to truckloads of gulf oysters quite soon. He expects that all the appellation oysters will be gone within the first two to three weeks of their availability because they're so desirable. During the height of the season, though, Welborn anticipates having 12 to 18 appellation varieties from as far north as Prince Edward Island.
Eleven XI currently has "East Coast Oysters" on the menu for $30 per dozen, but Welborn says once the gulf oysters come in, they'll probably be about $1 a piece and will be shucked in front of customers, the best way to display their freshness.
We know there are many, many places to get raw oysters around our great city, so let us know where you go for delicious shucking.