New Haven Shucks

William Sabel PhotoEric Rowe was having an otherwise normal week when, on his walk home from work, he made a discovery that rocked his boat: Four different New Haven bars offer dollar oysters on Wednesdays during happy hour.

For Rowe, an Indiana transplant who had developed an affinity for seafood, especially shellfish, after his move to the East Coast in 2012, this wasn’t just good news. It was cause for an oyster crawl. And some research into a one-time pearl of New Haven’s economy.

The results weren’t just filling. They revealed tasty morsels about our city’s history.

The initial preparations for the crawl were easy. Rowe gathered friends and double-checked that the bars —  Pacifico, Barracuda, Zinc and Atelier Florian  —  were good for dollar oysters at the times they said they were. When he thought of not following through, friend and local chef Marquis Thompson encouraged him to stick with it. He coordinated schedules, searching for a time that would work for everyone.

But he didn’t feel he could stop there. A consultant at Flath & Associates who approaches questions with an almost scientific precision, Rowe wanted data. Like, serious gustatory data that could, in theory, benefit anyone willing to give it a read.

That’s where a set of hard criteria came in. A sliding scale of one to five, for each of four categories.

“I arranged with a few of my friends to go on a three-hour oyster crawl and rate each oyster based on four characteristics: Salinity, size, succulence and sweetness,” he said on a recent episode of WNHH radio’s Kitchen Sync. “Salinity usually tells [you something about] the water that it’s harvested from. The size is usually a good indicator of its full flavor. The succulence is usually about how well they keep moisture contents in the oysters when they shuck it. And the sweetness pairs well if you don’t like eating oysters plain and you want to pair it with lemon, pepper, or any of the vinegar or rouille that are normally served with them.”

The great oyster experiment of 2016, he decided, was ready to begin. He set a date during New Haven Restaurant Week, rallied the troops, and sent out an important direction: Come hungry.

A History That Stuck

Lucy Gellman PhotoLong before the crawl was even a grain of sand in Rowe’s mind, the history of oysters intrigued him.

Born and raised in suburban Indiana, he didn’t know much about the rotating insalata di mare that is coastal New England. That all changed two years ago, when he went on a trip to Martha’s Vineyard with family friends, and became ensnared in tales of yore about man’s ongoing and sometimes rocky relationship with the ocean.

“There was a large painting of a whale, and they had coffee table books basically describing the story of Moby Dick in different terms —  just about the culture of harvesting seafood throughout two centuries,” he said. “I have a lot of friends in Narraganset, and just continuing to go to the coast, I’ve always been interested ... it’s interesting along the way to taste good food, but also learn a little bit about the work that so many people have done for centuries that feed people that live on the coast and to make a living for their families. Every destination that I’ve gone up along the coast teaches me a little bit more and piques my interest a little bit more.”

“Harvesting clams and oysters, and sifting through the beds of brackish water, the beaches, is a very interesting way to fish, compared to using nets and hooks and lines” he added. “To be able to walk out in a place like Short Beach, Branford, and just walk in low tide out as far as you can, and just start feeling around and feeling clams and oysters and being able to dive down and pick them up, is a very interesting thing to do with just your bare hands and feet.” 

He made discoveries along the way. Both New Haven and Connecticut, the latter of which dubbed oysters the state shellfish in 1989, have a long and fraught history with the the Blue Point bivalve (Crassostrea virginica) and their ilk, the most common to show up on menus. A little less than 300 years ago, fisherman were going so crazy over them that regulatory laws were instituted at the mid 18th century, first in 1750 and in New Haven in 1762 and 1766. While they were intended to protect the oyster population, forbidding overfishing during spawning season, and then limiting harvesting from the sandy, salty bottom where oysters hid, the laws weren’t enforced much. Overfishing was a problem by the 19th century.

That was good, if temporarily, for New Haven. By the 1850s, Fair Haven was oyster central. Fishers went to Oyster Point —  now City Point, so named for its potential as a first suburb of New Haven —  and the Quinnipiac River to harvest millions of oysters that would be shipped to still-booming, industrially robust Midwestern cities like St. Louis and Chicago.

But the success didn’t last.

By 1920, Connecticut’s oyster beds had dried up, pillaged by overzealous fishermen. Oystering operations fell drastically by 1950. They had naturally occurring saltwater foes too — saltwater snails, crabs and other sea creatures attacked oysters for food, while rising temperatures (ahem, global warming) also injured the populations, a wave of parasitic infections wiping out large swaths in the late 1009s.

And then, in the 2000s, they started coming back —  but were rarely from New Haven. Which caught Rowe’s interest.

“For 30 years, New Haven was thriving in harvesting oysters,” he said. “Then the oyster history was really lost. I need to get out to Shell & Bones,” which has revived the old Chart House restaurant and its shellfish tradition on the water at City Point.

Will Crawl For Oysters
 
Lucy Gellman PhotoThe hunt began downtown. On a sunny, cool Wednesday afternoon at the beginning of April, four hungry oyster pioneers set out on land, mapping their route.

Walking from Chapel and Church towards the heart of downtown they would hit Zinc, Pacifico, Barracuda, and then loop back to Florian, chatting with chefs where the opportunities presented. At each, they would follow a pattern: ordering six to 12 oysters, to be eaten in a very particular order: plain, where the sea’s flavor itself could stand alone; with a drizzle of lemon and crank of fresh pepper; and with the sauce served alongside the oysters. They’d been over the risks — severe bacterial food poisoning, which could come from any of the four places — and were ready to go.

To Rowe’s delight, none of the oysters were “bad in any location,” allaying his fear that the crawl would be a bust. In fact, there was plenty of variety for him to use his scale on. Rowe didn’t like the oysters Pacifico “because they weren’t as salty,” but found their two types of horseradish sauce redeeming. At Barracuda, “presentation and shucking were to be desired,” the oysters sticking to the shell as he tried to lift them to his lips.

Not all was lost: Chef Denise Appel at Zinc blew the group away with a weekly sauce, warning that it would be different the next time they came. Other vinaigrettes and chimichurri sauces exceeded expectations.

And Florian, with its offer of ten different varieties of oysters, netted from Virginia to Maine, impressed him.     

He checked in to see what data was coming from the other participants. 

“Great meatiness, pleasing overall,” one had written at Pacifico. “Two horseradish sauces provide for a range of flavor combinations.”

“Not salty or succulent, but the sweetness was delicious,” Thompson had added at Zinc.

They ate and wrote, wrote and ate some more. By the end of the crawl, Rowe and his friends reached the conclusion that “Florian can be an oyster tour for anyone in New Haven.” At least,” he added hesitantly in the interview “on that particular Wednesday.”

The Winning Pick

Chef Brook Stocklin, who has changed how Atelier Florian procures, keeps, and serves oysters since the restaurant’s opening in early 2015, can take credit for that ruling from Rowe’s crew.

Stocklin doesn’t have a secret, he maintained when interviewed for an episode of WNHH radio’s “Kitchen Sync.” He just works really hard at his job. And he’s good at what he does. After a bout of blue-point-oyster-induced Vibrio vulnificus that left him in the hospital in 2007, he didn’t really see any alternative.

“I have zero secrets,” he said. “I know classical French food. I worked at Union League Cafe for a very long time—like 10 years ... I found my home on the grill, cooking meats over there for him [executive chef Jean Pierre Vuillermet] for about eight years. He doesn’t go above and beyond with his oysters—his food is elsewhere in his mind, but he has Malpeques and West Coast, like a Kumamoto or something, and then some other ones, like an Irish or a Blackberry.

“When I started working here [Florian] about a year ago, the whole oyster thing was a disaster. Nobody knew what they were doing with them. The way they were storing them was so inappropriate that it was just appalling to me. I had them dump everything and we started from the ground up. From the other chefs that were here before I took over ... they weren’t really interested in it.”

So he got interested in it, doing his research before presenting a final oyster lineup for the menu. Oysters, it turned out, were much better to eat and harvest during late August until springtime, when the water from which they were coming was at its coldest. That’s where a strong investment in variety came from: Blue Points — the ones that had made him so sick — from Copps Island in Norwalk, where the water was colder and the oysters would be a little sweet. Scarce, briny Pemaquids from Maine’s rivers. Light Blackberries and brothy Gooseberries, and metallic Chef Creek Oysters from the West Coast, on which he took a gamble that sold out.

“It just takes time,” he said. “I have the guys here smell ‘em, we go through the whole process ... if you question it, check with somebody else. Don’t ever assume that you’re going to send out a good oyster if it doesn’t feel right to you. Then you’ll get somebody sick ... you gotta be careful.”

For him, that also means keeping an eye on global warming, which has left oysters particularly vulnerable to bacteria and parasitic infections that thrive in warmer temperatures. This summer, that means fewer oysters from Connecticut, and more from “Rhode Island and up.” “That water stays cold up there,” he explained, adding that New England’s oysters would never rival the sweet, fatty consistency of shellfish pulled from states like Washington and Oregon, where the cold, mineral-rich waters of the Pacific give rise to a whole other host of flavors.

He had some advice for New Haven’s oyster virgins, too.

“I would go right for happy hour and go right for the Blue Point oysters,” he said. “You’re not going to confuse your palate with a Blue Point oyster.”

 

This article is part of Kitchen Sync’s exploration into food and culinary culture in New Haven. To listen to the interview, click on or download the audio above, or subscribe to WNHH’s podcast “WNHH Arts Mix” on Soundcloud or iTunes.

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