Pearls of wisdom: A new bed of oysters is cropping up in Florida
Many good things come from Florida waters, most deliciously the oyster. The Apalachee, then Europeans and Africans mastered the skill of cracking open the crusty shells and digging out and slurping raw shellfish — soft, saltysweet and slip-sliding easy to eat.
Today, the humble oyster is enjoying the same kind of favor Florida diners bestow on farm-raised beef and vegetables. In addition to locally harvested oysters raked up from bays in the state’s northwest, shellfish arrive in Florida from waters as far away as New England and the wild Pacific Northwest.
Chalkboards at a new set of Florida restaurants offer oyster connoisseurs a dozen or two species, along with homeports, for that day’s oysters, priced at $3 apiece and up: Kumamotos and Belons, Riptides and Arrowhead Petites from Prince Edward Island, Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound.
Distributors like Katie Sosa scout out small oyster farms and fleets for the variety that the best Florida oyster bars demand. “It’s the new wine tasting,” says Sosa, of Sammy’s Seafood.
Among her current favorites:
Rhode Island Beach Blondes with deep “cups” and crisp brine, Washington State Hama Hamas and “glorious” Gliddens from Damariscotta, Maine.
The differences are infinite, and the bars are hip to advise newbies. Plump, crisp, buttery, frilly, sweet, briny or clean, long and smooth, or meaty. Plenty of choices for a sniffing snob or a slurping slob.
Oyster Hot Spots Around the State
- At glossy Sea Salt, Venice-born chef and seafood purist Fabrizio Aielli opened with 25 oyster varieties and 50 salts on an 80-foot raw bar in his St. Petersburg restaurant two years ago. It and the Naples location host Oyster 101 seminars as popular as winemaker dinners or truffle tastings.
- A few blocks away, Kevin Joseph, a New York promoter of oyster love, parks his Shuck Truck at Intermezzo Cafe coffee and cocktail bar for a pop-up version of his Empire Oyster Bar. He started New York Oyster week five years ago, offers oyster edutainment and plans oyster bars in Harlem and Hoboken.
- Last year, Sarasota’s Mark Caragiulo of Cracker-style Owen’s Fish Camp went upscale and slick with Veronica Fish & Oyster’s gleaming bar and a sophisticated menu. Start with a half-dozen raw or get snazzy with wood-fired oysters with uni, raw with vodka and caviar or gazpacho shooters.
- In Orlando, Two Chefs Seafood Oyster Bar (namely Larry Sinibaldi and Bernard Carmouche) deals out $1 oysters on Tuesday nights and also serves gussied up ones every night Rockefeller-style or with habaneros or “atomic” horseradish. They’ve just opened Muddy Waters downtown with more oysters and po-boy “peacemakers.”
- In south Florida, one leader is Danny Serfer of Blue Collar, who opened Mignonette, named for the classic sauce of vinegar, shallots and pepper. He has one in North Miami Beach and another in downtown Miami with a marquee of the day’s selections, including comfort foods like latkes with caviar or lobster.
- Ella’s Oyster Bar opened in Miami’s Little Havana with a daily selection of oysters and clams and global accents: Ceviche, peanut sauce and sak-steaming.
- And almost every chain steak and seafood restaurant from Eddie V’s to Truluck’s allows Floridians to indulge in heaps of oysters on towering plateaus like Parisian swells in brasseries of a century ago.
- Along the Panhandle, gourmands still take pride and no-frills pleasure in the hardwon Eastern oysters of Apalachicola and other coastal fisheries. They doll them up with baked cheese and Cajun spices or suck ’em down raw by the dozens. Take Hunt’s Oyster Bar on Panama City’s waterfront. Although the St. Andrews district is reviving, oyster lovers have poured into Hunt’s for 50 years. No surprise it’s down-home outside and so busy that the long lines draw souvenir vendors.
Inside, the vibe is slap-happy friendly, and the half-shells the cleanest I’ve seen.
No wonder master shucker Honor Allen won the national championship at 4 to 5 seconds a shell.
I’ll Drink to That
Dry and crisp acidic drinks go best, just like a squeeze of lemon.
- Beer: Try a hoppy ale like an IPA or saison.
- Wine: Champagne is iconic, yet French muscadet, Chablis or Sancerre are more affordable and bone dry. Crisp sauvignon blanc or pale dry fino sherry.
- Spirits: Cold vodka and gin in dry martinis or Bloody Marys.
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