The raw bar: Out of the ocean and onto your plate
The flavors of the sea await at your local raw bar, but are you brave enough to dive in?
Platters of briny oysters and sweet clams are on the menu at most Shore restaurants this time of year, but these summertime staples can be intimidating for beginners. There are clunky shells to contend with, tiny forks to wrangle and pools of salty liquor to taste - and don't forget about the slurping.
If you want to tackle the raw bar, now is the time - fresh shellfish is being pulled from New Jersey's waters every day. To help you make the leap, we talked with Matt Gregg, owner of Forty North Oyster Farms, and James Avery, the seafood-loving chef behind The Bonney Read in Asbury Park.
Out of the water
When you look over the raw bar at your favorite restaurant, chances are good that the oysters came from Forty North Oyster Farms.
The operation, led by Matt Gregg, is a collection of locations throughout Barnegat Bay. He raises oysters for local restaurants, and the process is a labor of love: They start out very small - a dozen baby oysters could fit on the tip of a finger - and take anywhere from 14 to 28 months to mature, Gregg said.
"We call them Forty North Rose Coves," he said of the oysters, which are served at The Bonney Read in Asbury Park, The Old Causeway in Stafford, Black Eyed Susans in Harvey Cedars and The Arlington in Ship Bottom, among others. "Most people don't know this, but every oyster that is grown on the Atlantic is the same species. They're very similar to a wine grape in the sense that they take on the flavors of the specific region that they grown in."
Rose Coves get their salty flavor from the proximity of their waters to the ocean - about four miles - but algae gives them a sweetness, "so it's kind of a perfect combination of salty and sweet," Gregg said.
Forty North came about after Gregg, who worked on fishing boats while growing up in Monmouth County, went to school in Rhode Island and spent time on an oyster farm there.
"I wanted to bring it back to my home state," he said. "Typically, it's always been the oyster harvester and the oyster wholesaler. There's just a natural disconnect from that, so we're actually both. We go an extra step so we can sell direct to restaurant, and I think that chefs and consumers really appreciate that."
Onto your plate
On your first visit to the raw bar at The Bonney Read, Chef James Avery has a simple but important suggestion:
"I always say seafood should taste like the ocean - clean, salty and fresh," Avery said. "It should never taste or smell like fish."
A good beginner oyster, he said, is a Bluepoint from Long Island or Wellfleet from Massachusetts: "It's a medium to large-sized oyster, really clean and briny. Anything that comes from pretty much north of New York up to Prince Edward Island is a great beginner oyster; they're not too big, not too chewy.
"Once you get comfortable enough eating raw shellfish, you want to try different ones," said Avery, who offers a raw bar with selections that change daily. "West Coast oysters, they taste a lot like cucumber or algae, a much different flavor. They're not briny, almost creamy - the texture is completely different. A lot of people like starting off with them because they're a lot smaller, and since they're creamier as opposed to chewier, a little easier to eat."
As for his favorite, the chef prefers East Coast oysters: "It tastes like you're getting smacked in the face by a wave," he said.
"All oysters are great; they're like wine," Avery said. "There's a lot of different characteristics and flavor nuances that you are looking for based on the time of year, the water they come from. You may have the same species of oyster, one from Long Island and one from Virginia, and they'll taste completely different."
Next up is the clam. The Bonney Read serves, among other varieties, Mahogany clams from Maine and blood clams from Baja, Mexico, which are named for their color, derived from a natural iodine - "that's for the most adventurous," Avery said. "(One of the) clams that we use here comes out Sandy Hook and it's the best-tasting clam. New Jersey waters have the best conditions for clam farming."
If you can't decide, that is the beauty of the raw bar: "Everything is a la cart," Avery said. "You can come in and design your own platter, design your own experience."
Dress them up
Once you have the shellfish on your plate, try them plain to get a taste for the flavor - sweet or salty? - and texture - creamy or chewy? This way, you will know which varieties to order next time.
"As you get more comfortable with the idea of the oyster, condiments have a big (part in it)," Avery said. "My favorite way to eat them is with a little vinegar and mignonette."
The latter is a classic raw bar pairing - the sauce is vinegar-based, with chopped shallots or onion and plenty of pepper. The chef recently launched a line of mignonettes - a classic and a carrot version - which are available at Whole Foods Markets and at Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge.
"They're a really great accompaniment to oysters," he said. "They enhance the flavor of they oyster more than cover it up. (For the carrot mignonette), I wanted a different flavor than what you usually expect. Carrots are sweet, so the sweet and saltiness of the oyster, and adding shallots, vinegar and cumin, round out the flavor profile."
SHORE RAW BARS TO TRY:
Clam Bar: This Beach Haven spot, the sister restaurant to Harvey Cedars Shellfish Co., serves little neck and top neck clams harvested from the southern part of bay off of Tuckerton, plus Bluepoints and Cape May Salts. 506 West Centre St.; 609-492-2459 or http://harveycedarsshellfishco.com.
Crab's Claw Inn: "We have select oysters every week from different parts of the country, both from the East Coast and the West Coast," owner Louise Hammer said, explaining that varieties from the cold waters of Maine and Rhode Island are fresh and briny, while oysters from the warm-weather Gulf and West Coast are more milky. Last week, the restaurant served oysters from Virginia, Delaware, Prince Edward Island and Washington. 601 Grand Central Ave.; 732-793-4447 or www.thecrabsclaw.com.
Jack Baker’s Wharfside: The raw bar at this Point Pleasant Beach restaurants serves locally sourced Jonah crab claw, peel-and-eat shrimp, top neck clams from Atlantic County’s Great Bay and oysters from the James River in Virginia. 101 Channel Drive; 732-892-9100 or www.wharfsidenj.com.
Rooney's Oceanfront Dining: Oyster lover will find Bluepoints and Chesapeakes, Kumamotos from California and Hammersleys from Washingon at this Long Branch restaurant. "We also bring in about three to four more oysters during the summer; the chef likes to switch those around," manager Laura Christopher said. "He brings in a lot of local ones to support local oyster (suppliers) and probably another West Coast one, too." There also are topneck and littleneck clams and U8 shrimp cocktail - that means they are about the size of the space between your outstretched pointer finger and thumb. "We also do different medleys, different samplers to give you a little bit of everything," Christopher said. "Our most popular is our Chef's Colossal - 1.5-pound chilled lobster, a variety of clams and oysters, six shrimp cocktail and six ounces of jumbo lump crabmeat. It's a little bit of everything." Top it all off with cocktail sauce, horseradish, a cucumber-flavored green goddess sauce, mignonette, and a ginger lime relish. 100 Ocean Ave.; 732-870-1200 or http://www.rooneysocean.com.
Shipwreck Point Steakhouse: Chef Alex Tricarico's raw bar features two sizes of clams - littleneck and topneck. "Littlenecks are about an inch big and top necks probably are around two inches," she said. "We also have three kinds of oysters - Bluepoint from Long Island, which are popular, I think, because they're just the epitome of what an oyster should be, not too briny, not too salty, not too sweet. Anyone that wants to order an oyster can order that and pretty much be happy." The Point Pleasant Beach restaurant also serves Malpeques and Kumamotos. The latter "are sweeter, that's why people love them so much. I also have U10 shrimp - the bigger they are, the better they are, the more tender they're going to be, the more flavorful they're going to be." Top your shellfish with fresh, grated horseradish root: "They can spice up their cocktail sauce or just put it directly on the clam or the oyster," Tricarico said. "It gives that little bit of spice that opens up your palate a bit, kind of like wasabi does for sushi." 20 Inlet Drive; 732-899-3800 or search for the restaurant on Facebook.
Waypoint 622: The raw bar at this Brielle restaurant features middleneck clams, wild-caught Gulf shrimp cocktail, colossal lump crab cocktail and seasonal oysters. "In June, when the spawn starts, we go to a Sewansecott from Virginia," Executive Chef Dan Palsi said, "and we constantly rotate others from around the country." 622 Green Ave.; 732-528-6665 or www.waypoint622.com.