OYSTERS Coast to Coast
By June Naylor
Photos by Meda Kessler
The delicate, slippery bites perched on petite half shells draw oyster connoisseurs to order the Dirty Dozen at Waters, the seafood destination in downtown Fort Worth’s Sundance Square. This daily offering of oysters shipped fresh, usually from the East Coast, presents 12 boutique bivalves of various origin, depending on what’s arrived from the sea on a given day.
They’re dainty little things, pearlescent and almost frilly — especially compared to the husky boys pulled from the Gulf of Mexico — each with its own distinctive taste. Experts with practiced palates declare their favorites, whether it’s the Wellfleet from the waters off Cape Cod or Glidden Point from Maine or any number of other pedigreed selections.
“It starts with the briny salinity, then the more subtle nuances like melon or cucumber can shine through,” says Jon Bonnell, owner-chef at Waters, of flavors that inspire customer preferences. “Many oysters live near the mouth of a river where they can dine on saltwater microorganisms for half of the day, then switch to freshwater feasts after the tide reverses. This diversity of nutrition and varying salinity creates different flavor profiles. People love a crispy texture, a cool taste of the ocean and then subtle flavors and nuances adding to the finish.”
Waters’ East Coast offerings include those from Virginia to Canada, though a Belon from France, a Kumamoto from the Pacific Northwest or a Bluff from New Zealand shows up on occasion. With any of these, Bonnell likes the subtle accent provided by his signature mignonette, a tart vinegar-based sauce that gets a zing from a Southwestern spice blend and a hint of serrano chile.
At The Sinclair hotel, also in downtown Fort Worth, enjoy Rappahannock oysters from Chesapeake Bay, as well as the Island Creek variety from Massachusetts, topped with bits of Spanish chorizo and pickled red onion and served with a subtle serrano-laced mignonette.
Texas Forever-The Gulf
Natives of the Lone Star State, of course, typically pledge allegiance to Gulf Coast oysters. The burly-by-comparison bivalves fished from Galveston Bay beds are at their peak now through early spring, when the water is cooler, and are pulled from reefs with names like Ladies Pass, Pepper Grove and Bull Hill. But don’t expect to see points of origin on menus. Texas aficionados are just not picky enough for purveyors to label Gulf mollusks. “People growing up here prefer Gulf oysters for their plump meats; they’re tender and mild, with a delicate flavor, thanks to the fresh water out of the Mississippi, lowering the salinity,” says James Balistriere, who admits he’s an oyster purist and prefers them raw. Balistriere, Central Market’s seafood buyer, works directly with Gulf Coast oyster fishing outfits with particular environmental certifications. “When we’re asked how to prepare them, we want to know, are you going to have champagne with your oysters or a cold lager?”
And yes, some like them cooked. Don’t pass up the grilled oysters at Ático in Fort Worth’s Stockyards, chef Tim Love’s tapas bar atop the SpringHill Suites by Marriott. Look for Malpeques and Blue Points — from Prince Edward Island and Long Island, respectively — grilled over a mesquite fire and crowned with a little Spanish pork jowl bacon and Parmesan. The Gulf’s chubbier oysters are chef Jon Bonnell’s preference when frying them, as in his Texasfeller rendition — topped with hollandaise, wilted spinach and tasso — served at both Bonnell’s and Waters in Fort Worth. The cooking versatility is key to the big oyster’s allure. James Balistriere of Central Market agrees the Gulf variety is better also for roasting, baking and especially grilling, which he advises is a snap: Over medium-high heat, put whole oysters on the grate, cupped side down, and cook till the top shell pops up — about 5 minutes. Shuck and eat, maybe drizzled with a melted butter and herbs.