Start the New Year with a New View of Oysters
You either love them or hate them. There is not much gray area when it comes to oysters, except maybe when it comes to their outer shell. It has been said, “He was a bold man who ate the first oyster.” But these days, with all the varying ways to prepare and serve them, almost anyone can find a way to enjoy oysters. Still not sure? To convince you of what you’re missing, we visited a few of the best oyster spots in town to get some advice. >>
Millstone Tea Room
Chef Partner Jared Srsic of Millstone Tea Room gave me the scoop on when and why to eat oysters. “The old crusty fisherman’s rule of thumb was to eat oysters in the ‘R’ months for two reasons: lack of proper refrigeration in the old days and the fact that oysters spawn in the warmer waters of summer. Spawning oysters won’t hurt you, but they don’t taste great, kind of milky and languid. It is for those reasons that many people shy away from oysters in the summer months,” he said. “But the modern chef’s access to cold water oysters from around the world and super reliable refrigeration helps in alleviating most guests’ fears of the summer oyster. Stick with the grilled and fried ones during the summer if you’re unsure.”
There is only one rule that Chef Jared tends to follow in his kitchen—keep it simple. “Garlic butter, mignonette, salt and pepper, cornmeal crust or bacon-laced scalded milk are about the only things that should touch a great Virginia oyster. I remind my cooks that the shell oyster is alive and should remain alive when it is stored. We scrub each religiously upon arrival; store them cup-side down and blanketed with a damp towel in our produce refrigerator closest to the fan. When they shuck them, we evaluate appearance, texture and aroma. If they don’t pass these tests, they are promptly discarded.”
Our favorite dish on the menu at Millstone has to be the fried oysters with deviled egg dressing that they have proudly been serving since 2007. Chef Jared had a similar dish in Charleston years ago, thankfully was able to recreate it, and it’s been a staple ever since. The best way to wash them down? He swears by a cheap pale ale or the best French champagne!
The Main St. Eatery and Catering Co.
We asked Chef Urs Gabathuler, proprietor of The Main St. Eatery and Catering Co., if oysters are a popular dish at his intimate restaurant. He tells us “yes, indeed” for the sophisticated clientele they tend to service. He sources his from the Chesapeake Bay and North Carolina. Chef Urs tells me raw oysters should have their own juice within the shell, called liquor, and warns us the biggest mistake when preparing oysters is to overcook!
If you are an oyster neophyte, Main St. Eatery will provide you with the most variety of preparations.
You must go soon as Chef tells us their special oyster menu is seasonal and only available from November through February.
Of the many dishes, the Oysters Imperial Au Gratin with Crabmeat Imperial seems like the easiest choice. Served fresh and hot, these babies are the perfect introduction into the wide world of oysters.
Chef Urs tells me his customers often enjoy drink pairing suggestions from his staff. He would recommend a fine dry Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay or a flute of champagne with any of his oyster dishes.
The Water Dog
If you have not been to The Water Dog (TWD) yet, you’re one of the few. The tap house and oyster bar has quickly become a Lynchburg favorite and the “go to” in town for raw oysters. Owner Dave Henderson wants you to think of TWD as an extension of your home where the oysters are shucked fresh to order, the menu is almost entirely scratch made, and the craft beer flows endlessly. While the menu boasts many decadent grilled cheese options, snacks, salads and desserts (homemade cookies!), the raw oyster is the star of this show.
A self-proclaimed “oysterhead,” Dave has been eating oysters for as long as he can remember. He brings this passion to TWD, and there is evidence of it everywhere. “I think oysters are the purest expression of the sea, outside the sea itself. They can be briny, light, sometimes slightly metallic. They can remind you of the sea and its mesmerizing, rolling waves. The foam and bubbles clinging to sand as the ocean creeps back leaving only your footprints as evidence that you were ever there. The romantic in me yearns for that feeling, and I know by eating a raw oyster in the half shell—naked and only soaking in its own liquor—that I can be back on that beach in seconds.”
How can you not love this guy?
We asked Dave how someone new to the intimidating raw oyster can ease into them, and he joked, “Raw and down the hatch!” Not convinced? He tells us, “Lynchburg’s cherished astronaut and frequent visitor, Leland Melvin, loves them fried. That’s probably the best way one could ease into them without diving right into raws.”
If you need a little liquid courage, TWD also serves up a great Oyster Shooter. “The best way to experience the Oyster Shooter is to have it with just a touch of our house-made Bloody Mary mix and a little Silverback Distillery Vodka from just up the road in Afton, Virginia. Some people like it from a shot glass, but I prefer it straight out of the half-shell. Whatever you do, make sure you capture all of the salty oyster liquor!” Not in to the shooter but want to enjoy a drink with your raw oysters? Dave promises a bottle of buttery white wine will pair effortlessly with oysters and is fun to share with friends, which is what TWD is all about.
The Water Dog showcases Chesapeake oysters. They most often serve Rappahannock River (Topping, Va., Lower Bay, Western Shore), Stingray (James River, Tidewater), Tom’s Cove (Chincoteague, Va., Seaside), and Chesapeake (Ship John, NJ, Upper Bay, Eastern Shore). Dave tells me they “also feature fan favorites such as Blue Points from Long Island, NY, or Cooks Cove from P.E.I. in Canada.”
Chef Liz Roberg serves them up with an optional Spicy Mignonette that she generously shared with us! And Dave says hair of the dog secret is to
use the Spicy Mignonette as the hot sauce in your Bloody Mary at brunch—now we know!
By Rachel Dalton