The Mightiest Mollusk
Oysters Bring Sophistication, and a Taste of the Wild, to Area Restaurants
Restaurateur Scott Plath was sitting at end of the Cobblestones bar when he noticed something peculiar on the chalkboard. Written on it were all the types of oysters the restaurant carried, with check marks next to the ones they were serving that day, as well as the location of where the oysters were farmed.
Plath, the owner of Cobblestones and Moonstones in Lowell and Chelmsford, respectively, studied the list and then turned to his chef, who had taken up the barstool next to him.
“Hey, Pauly,” he said. “Let me ask you a question. How come there are no West Coast oysters on the board? You’re never featuring any West Coast oysters. It’s all East Coast.”
Pauly cocked his head. “You’re f—ing kidding, right?” he said in his signature gravelly voice.
Plath gave him a puzzled look. “No. Do you see any West Coast oysters up there? They’re all East Coast.”
“You are freakin’ pulling my leg right now.”
“Really, I’m not joking with you right now. Explain it to me. I’m missing the joke.”
“You don’t remember telling me six months ago, ‘With all the great oysters on the East Coast, why would we just ship them across the country from the West Coast?’ ”
Plath patted him on the back. “Ah, I was just makin’ sure you were listening, Pauly.”
The conversation between the two men attests to the loyalty New Englanders have for local seafood. Despite the appeal of sweet-tasting West Coast oysters like the Kumamoto and Baynes Sound, the briny and salty taste of East Coast oysters like Crassotrea virginica, commonly called the Eastern oyster, dominate the landscape here.
Taste is only one dimension of these beloved bivalves. Oysters are also one of the most environmentally friendly organisms in the ocean.
“The bottom line is that oysters eat microscopic and nonmicroscopic algae,” said Alex Hay, co-owner of Mac’s Seafood and the Wellfleet Shellfish Co. “Algae needs nitrogen to survive, and so basically oysters are used in a well-balanced ecological setting to control the amount of algae that grows and the speed in which it grows by filtering the water.”
The science behind the oysters works like this: When algae blooms in the ocean, the green sludge creates a congestion that affects the ability of a fish to inhabit that environment. Oysters feed on algae while filtering up to 50 gallons of water per day. Feeding on algae helps keep the reefs alive and prevents the ocean floor from turning into a swampy nightmare. With the reefs alive, a habitat is maintained for smaller fish, which bring in bigger fish. It may be a drop in the ocean (pun, sadly, intended), but the oysters’ sustainability efforts are heralded.
“[Oysters are] a huge benefit,” says Hay, who also serves on the Wellfleet Wastewater Committee, but makes clear that they’re not a silver bullet when it comes to controlling excess nitrogen levels in the estuaries.
Unlike other types of farmed animals, oyster farming still takes place “in the wild.” All along the coast, oysters in cages feed in the same water as wild oysters. This allows the farmed oysters to deliver the same flavor as their wild cohorts, but also helps filter the water. Hay attests that the farmed oysters benefit the wild oysters because of their role in improving the water quality in their habitats.
Despite the potentially polarizing politics of aquaculture, farmed oysters far exceed wild oysters in restaurant sales.
Like the mollusk they’re serving, the purveyors of the oysters also try to do their part to help the environment by reducing their carbon footprint in oyster sales.
For Jim Dietz, the owner of Joe Fish in North Andover and North Reading, choosing to stick with East Coast oysters was less about taste and more about economics.
“Because there’s so much more transportation, the prices are higher [for West Coast oysters],” he said. “It’s not because they’re a better species, it’s because of the price.”
Before Joe Fish, Dietz cut his teeth in the seafood trade while working at Legal Sea Foods, the Massachusetts-based restaurant chain. He said his role allowed him to learn about the different species of fish, how they’re caught, why they’re caught, and how they’re stored.
Dietz learned from the farms how to buy and handle oysters, as well as how to clean them properly.
Dietz and Plath both focused on seafood in their restaurants for the simple reason that there is a paucity of seafood options in Merrimack Valley.
Oysters can be the ticket to more foot traffic on weeknights. For many seafood restaurants buck-a-shuck promotions can turn a Monday or Tuesday night into one of the most successful nights of the week.
“Mondays, we’re doing the same amount of sales as a Friday,” Plath said.
“We call [buck-a-shuck] a loss leader,” he said. You break even or you even lose money to get people to flock [to your restaurant], but then we make money somewhere else, like at the bar.”
Oysters are unlike any appetizer. Imagine going on a date, ordering a glass of your favorite wine or beer, and asking your server, “What did you get shipped in for pickles today?”
Oysters are multidimensional. With different sizes, textures and salinity levels, the experience is customizable by the consumer. In Plath’s and Dietz’s restaurants, there are always different varieties of oysters to choose from.
After inquiring about varieties, “The next question they ask is ‘which is the biggest’ or ‘which is the smallest,’” Plath said, noting that some consumers think that a larger oyster is a better value.
Typical garnishes for oysters include lemon juice, cocktail sauce, horseradish and Tabasco. But for the restaurant owners, the way to truly experience an oyster and its environment is by eating it naked.
“Whenever I get an oyster, I always taste it with nothing on it first,” Dietz said. “That way I can say it’s a very briny oyster, and I can tell if I like it.”
The culture of oysters is classy, sexy and palatable for foodies and first-timers to shellfish.
“They’re hand-shucked, still alive, they’re glistening; they’re usually served on a bed of cracked ice, and then you’ve got the bright lemon and the bright cocktail sauce,” Plath said. “Oysters can be both sophisticated and wild.”
North Andover and North Reading
(978) 685-3663 and (978) 207-0357
[Please note that at the time of publication, the restaurants noted above were offering special services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please call or visit their websites for updates, and consider purchasing gift cards to help support local restaurants and their staff during the current crisis.]