Across the country, diners in full-service casual and casual-upscale restaurants are being treated to a wide variety of hot oyster dishes featuring new and unique flavor treatments.
The reasons for their increasing popularity are many. Dining consumers value restaurant dishes they cannot easily prepare at home, and oysters in their shells certainly fall into that category. For commercial restaurants, however, a hot oyster dish can be created via a fairly simple layering of flavorful ingredients, and their quick cooking time is a great advantage during service.
Oysters also bring a premium value to consumers, who see them as a luxury item. And while fresh oysters are not inexpensive, a plate of six can still be sold at an attractive price point. They also fit well in today’s full-service dining style, appropriate as an appetizer, bar snack or shared plate.
Consequently, chefs are expanding the flavor possibilities of hot oyster dishes well beyond the traditional Rockefeller via a combination of more aggressive cooking methods, creative sauces and boldly flavored, richly textured toppings.
Firing up Flavors
Quick cooking over an open wood flame allows oysters to remain tender and moist, while imbuing them with a subtle smoky flavor. At Mas (La Grillade) in New York, chef Galen Zamarra wood-grills oysters and flavors them simply with butter, lemon and cracked black pepper.
Roasting oysters using high heat and brief cooking creates a caramelized crust while keeping the oysters plump and juicy. Chef Jason Paskewitz of Chicago’s Rustic House employs this method to perfection in his dish of roasted oysters with Cajun spice, lemon and Romano cheese crust.
Pan smoking oysters à la minute using sawdust, wood chips or straw provides a light smoke flavor that is much less intense than conventional hot smoking. Chicago-based chef Andrew Brochu is locally famous for his pan-smoked oysters, which he prepares and serves in a cast-iron pan using hickory shavings, cooking just long enough to melt the topping of herbed garlic butter and warm the oysters through.
Rolling freshly shucked oysters in cornmeal or breadcrumbs and pan-frying them yields a crunchy crust, providing the perfect textural counterpoint to the tender meat. At Peruvian restaurant Picca in Los Angeles, chef Ricardo Zarate places the fried oysters back in their shells, and garnishes them with Latin salsa criolla and a drizzle of spicy rocoto chile cream.
One commonality to all of these methods is quick cooking. The oysters should never be cooked to the point that their natural “liquor” evaporates.
Sauces & Toppings:
Layering the Flavors
A prime example of flavor layering can be found in chef Mark Steuers’ Low Country Roasted Oysters at Carriage House in Chicago, where oven-roasted oysters are topped with shreds of crispy jowl bacon, housemade tomato jam, buttermilk aïoli and crunchy fried leeks. A number of sauces may serve as the base for unique flavor additions.
- Aïolis and other mayonnaise-based sauces
- Compound butters
- Hollandaise-based sauces
- Tomato sauces
- Alfredo and other cream-based sauces
Richly roasted or simmered vegetable relishes make ideal toppings.
- Tomato or onion jam
- Baba ghanoush
- Creole relish
A Quick Shot of Flavor
A simple drizzle of liqueur or fortified wine can further intensify the complexity of a hot oyster dish. At their Brooklyn restaurant Marco’s, chefs Francine Stephens and Andrew Feinberg serve wood-grilled oysters splashed with a shot of anisette before being topped with garlic butter and herbed marinara.
LIQUEURS & WINE OPTIONS:
- Anise liqueurs including pastis, ouzo and absinthe
- Orange Curaçao or limoncello
- Bourbon or American whiskey-based liqueurs
- Almond or hazelnut liqueurs
- Fortified wines, including sherry and Madeira
Crusts & Crumbles:
Bring on the Crunch
Crowning oysters with crunchy toppings that caramelize while oven roasting provides the perfect textural finish. For example, signature oysters at all-day breakfast spot Egg in Brooklyn are treated to a squeeze of fresh lemon, a dollop of butter and a generous sprinkling of housemade cornbread crumbs before roasting.
CRUST & CRUMBLE VARIATIONS:
- Cornbread crumbs
- Pretzel crumbs
- Toasted quinoa
- Shredded or granulated Parmesan or Romano
- Crispy fried onions or shallots
A Delicious New Direction
Master charcuterie chef Chris Cosentino created a game-changing oyster dish at L.A. restaurant Umamicatessen when he topped them with a smear of the Italian spreadable salami known as nduja. When these oysters are oven roasted just to the point of melting the nduja, a uniquely delicious marriage of flavors results. This land-and-sea ingredient combination works equally well with a variety of smoked and cured meats and sausage meats that are cooked and crumbled.
MEAT TOPPING VARIATIONS:
- Chopped crunchy bacon or guanciale
- Chopped dry salami or soppressata
- Ground chorizo
- Pork breakfast sausage
For those operators who perceive the storing and handling of fresh oysters an obstacle, IQF oysters in the half shell are a solid option. Hand-shucked and blast frozen, these oysters enable operators to serve a pristinely fresh product if properly thawed and quickly used.
Combined with a flavorful cooking method, the creative layering of sauces, toppings and garnishes can produce a wide variety of unique, signature oyster dishes.