If there's one dish that comes to mind that could uniquely define Houston's culinary
palette palate at this very moment, it would have to be RDG+Bar Annie's fresh "canned" smoked oyster deluxe. Executive Chef Robert del Grande took a traditionally canned cocktail appetizer from the 1950s and '60s era and transformed it into a refined and inventive creation infused with his signature Southwestern influences. "One of the questions I ask myself when I create a new dish is 'Why here?'" he says, "What would make this dish specific to our city and not, say, New York City?"
The brilliance of this hors d'oeuvre was, funnily enough, born from a need for kitchen efficiency. Robert del Grande saw that his kitchen was overwhelmed with an influx of fried oyster orders, so he decided to devise a different plan for these briny Gulf Coast treasures. (Fried oysters are best cooked to order in small batches, but the popularity of the dish caused overcrowding in the fryer.) "I must've been standing by the smoker while holding some oysters when I thought, 'Why not smoke them?'" he recalls.
Del Grande wanted to keep the joys of eating oysters as true to the raw experience as possible. Unlike the shrunken, tough texture of the smoked oysters found in little tins, in RDG's version, they retain their natural plumpness and silky texture. The trick is to smoke the oysters in a low, gentle temperature of 180F over the course of an hour, covering them with a brine-soaked cheesecloth to keep the moisture inside.
The "secret sauce" that gives this dish a distinguished Houston flavor is literally in the sauce itself, which includes a mixture of guajillo chile puree, chipotle chile puree, and lime juice. Grilled fingers of bread are served alongside the oysters purely for sopping up the resulting spicy liquor. The smoked oysters cheekily arrive in their own little tin cans--Robert del Grande's way of sending a wink-and-a-smile to the table.
RDG/Bar Annie's Fresh "Canned" Smoked Oysters
1. Combine 1 teaspoon of salt and 1 cup of water. Stir to dissolve. Pour the salted water over 1 pound of freshly shucked oysters. Brine in the refrigerator overnight.
2. Drain the oysters. Spread the brined oysters on a perforated tray in a single layer. Cover the oyster with cheese cloth soaked in the brining solution. Hot smoke the oysters at approximately 180 degrees Fahrenheit for 1 hour. Refrigerate.
2. Combine 2 tablespoons of guajillo chile purée, 2 tablespoons of chipotle chile purée, 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, 2 teaspoons of lime juice, 1/4 teaspoon of sea salt and a pinch of black pepper. Mix well.
4. Add the chile mixture to the oysters and stir to coat. Transfer the oysters with some of the chile mix to small tin cans. Serve with skewers and toasts.