Stocked with a tempting selection of raw oysters and clams eaten on the half shell as well as a variety of popular cooked and chilled seafood, foodies everywhere are increasingly flocking to the fresh tastes of shore-area raw bars, where the preparation may be simple but the flavors, textures, and diversity are anything but.
The raw in “raw bar”
“A great raw bar is like a wine list —very detailed,” said Darrell Wordelmann
“A great raw bar is like a wine list —very detailed,” said Darrell Wordelmann, general manager of the nearly 20-year-old Rooney’s Oceanfront Restaurant in Long Branch. “There are hundreds of different types of oysters, all with different tastes and textures, and they each have their season. We try to offer the best oysters for the season.”
At Bistro 14 in Beach Haven, Executive Chef Richard Vaughan agrees that a diverse range of oysters are the hallmark of an exceptional raw bar. “Oysters can be cultivated/harvested or farmed in a variety of ways, all of which give different qualities to the oyster,” he said. “A variety of oysters from all around the region, country, and world allow people to experience oysters in a way they haven’t before and to taste the differences.”
At Rooney’s, which offers a large selection of oysters handpicked from among hundreds that Wordelmann has personally sampled in his cross-country travels, favorites include Chesapeake oysters, Kumamoto oysters from Humboldt Bay in California, and Jersey salt oysters from Cape May, all sold at $2.75 to $4 apiece and whose meat is “plump, firm, fresh, and briny yet sweet,” Wordelmann said.
At Bistro 14, “we offer 6 to 8 varieties from the East and West coasts of the U.S. and Canada, including local Mullica River oysters from Maxwell’s Seafood,” Vaughan said, all priced at $2 to $3.50 apiece.
Trend toward creative seasonings
Experts confirm that popular condiments for oysters include cocktail sauce, horseradish, lemon, Tabasco sauce, traditional oyster mignonette sauce made from a blend of vinegar, shallots and black pepper, or Rooney’s signature chipotle-flavored mignonette or ginger-lime relish, which reflect a growing trend towards creative seasonings.
“Everyone has their own way to eat and enjoy oysters,” said Wordelmann, though he and Vaughan noted that the results are the same.
“Our customers’ eyes brighten and you see a pop in their step after they’ve had them,” Vaughan said. “Oysters don’t weigh you down and when you eat them you feel like you’re able to take on the world. They have a certain reputation and a great following.”
Raw clams are another popular raw bar item. At Bistro 14, “we offer clams from McCarthy’s Clams, located 500 yards from our back door in Beach Haven,” Vaughan said. Priced at $1 a piece, “most customers eat up to a dozen as an appetizer, but one customer once ate five dozen in one sitting — that’s our record,” he shared proudly.
“When you realize how fresh and close to the source these raw items are, that’s the excitement,” Wordelmann said.
Cooked and chilled classics
For seafood lovers, raw bars also include a variety of cooked and chilled classics, from shrimp cocktail, peel-and-eat shrimp, jumbo lump crabmeat cocktail, and Dungeness, snow crab, blue crab, and Florida stone crab (in season from October to May) claws to seafood salads and ceviches. At Bistro 14, customers can enjoy chilled mussels served on the half shell with curry mayonnaise as well as half of a Dungeness crab ($13) sourced from the Pacific Northwest region of the U.S. or Canada.
Or try it all, as many larger parties like to do for a shared appetizer — Bistro 14’s “Plateau” or “Grand Plateau” platters, priced at $41 and $88, respectively, offer a selection of oysters, clams, shrimp, half of a Dungeness crab, crab claws, and mussels, while Rooney’s “Chef Ultimate Colossal,” priced at $145 and ideal for 4 to 6 people, offers six topneck clams, six littleneck clams, six U-6 shrimp cocktail, a 1½-pound chilled lobster, six Kumamoto oysters, six Blue Point oysters, and eight ounces of jumbo lump crabmeat.
Growing in popularity
“Our seafood has always been a focal point of our menu, but our raw bar has definitely seen steady growth,” said Vaughan, who added that “the culture of oysters and the raw bar have been increasing trends in the past five years, thanks to a movement towards clean, wild, and sustainable eating.”
Wordelmann agrees. “The concept of the raw bar has definitely taken off in the last 3 to 5 years — along with the appeal of sushi, people have become more adventuresome and more interested in eating raw and unprocessed foods,” Wordelmann said. “Last year, we sold over 50,000 raw clams and oysters, up 20 percent over five years ago.”
For those with concerns over the safety of raw fish, our experts confirm that this shouldn’t be an issue as long as the source is reputable. “Choose a place that’s very busy and has a high turnover,” advised Wordelmann, who noted that Rooney’s raw items are methodically tagged and kept refrigerated at 34 degrees for no longer than 36 hours. “And chewing the clam or oyster adequately will give you time to discard it on the off chance that it’s bad.”
“Once you’ve experienced a great raw bar, you’ll be hooked,” Wordelmann said. “Sitting outside by the ocean and eating fresh oysters or clams with a clean, crisp bottle of wine will trigger your happy place.”
For Vaughan, the role of teacher is particularly rewarding. “While raw bar food couldn’t be simpler, the most fun for me is introducing people to oysters and clams who have never had them before or who have been apprehensive about trying them — people are always surprised at the different flavors and complexity,” Vaughan concluded. And, he added, as raw bar fans know, “it’s exhilarating to enjoy the flavor, smell, and clean, sparkling taste of the sea.”
Original article written by Susan Bloom