Thursday, September 12, 2013

How you like dem oysters?

Chefs get creative with our favorite bivalve
As Saints fans gear up for the season opener this weekend, black and gold will be everywhere. That includes on the raw oysters at Bourbon House in New Orleans.
The French Quarter seafood restaurant has always offered a topping of black bowfin caviar on its oysters. But for a new special that kicked off Thursday and continues throughout Saints season, the restaurant is serving them beside oysters topped with golden-hued catfish caviar as well.
This Saints-themed seafood special is just the latest example of creatively wrought raw oyster platters that move beyond traditional cocktail sauce and crackers. They’re adding new dimensions to the beloved local bivalve without burying the essence of the oyster under ketchup and horseradish.
“When I was growing up, my dad always told us it was a waste to cover a good steak with A-1 sauce,” said Bourbon House proprietor Dickie Brennan. “He’d say, ‘Taste it instead, taste what it’s really like.’ That’s how I feel about cocktail sauce on oysters, so we try to offer alternatives.”
These alternatives are stacking up around New Orleans-area restaurants. At the Little Gem Saloon, chef Miles Prescott’s raw glaceĆ© oysters are topped with a tart slush of cranberry sorbet, while Restaurant R’evolution serves its oysters with an icy granita imbued with mellow cucumber and lemon flavors.
In Kenner, David Montes takes a simpler tact with raw oysters at his Mexican restaurants Chilangos Taqueria and Chilangos Seafood. The ostiĆ³nes Veracruz get a slice of fresh avocado, a spoonful of chunky pico de gallo and a squeeze of lime. Montes called this preparation a traditional Mexican beachfront snack, though washed down with a schooner of Dos Equis lager they made a great Williams Boulevard snack too.
One of the most elaborate raw oyster preparations turns up at Criollo, in the Hotel Montelone. The inspiration for Chef Joseph Maynard’s “oysters and pearls” appetizer was a dish of the same name at the renowned Napa Valley restaurant the French Laundry, though his rendition is no carbon copy. Maynard nests a fat, cold oyster in its shell between crisp mirliton slaw strung with sweet lump crabmeat and soft tapioca “pearls” spiked with Crystal hot sauce, plus a sprinkling of black caviar. The result is a cool, compelling combination of crisp and creamy textures and salty, spicy, marine-tinged flavors.
“There’s a lot going on in that dish, but our Gulf oysters are so big and plump they can stand up to all that,” said Maynard. “You can work with them and play around a bit.”
Like Criollo’s caviar, the eggs for Bourbon House’s black and gold oysters come from New Orleans-based Louisiana Caviar Co. The company’s black bowfin (a.k.a. choupique) caviar has found wide acceptance, though company founder John Burke said he’s only been marketing his catfish caviar for about a year, primarily to Louisiana chefs. Like the bowfin variety, he harvests the fish locally and prepares some batches with a touch of ghost pepper, adding a spicy bite.
“We call that caviar with a kick,” Burke said.
Beyond its potential to create a Saints-themed color scheme, the gold caviar makes a fine accompaniment to oysters. The eggs are larger and softer than the bowfin variety, and they taste milder and a bit earthier and creamier. If you find black caviar too intense, this catfish caviar might be more your speed. At Bourbon House, both the black and gold oysters are doused with a light mignonette sauce, made with shallots, Champagne, vinegar and Creole mustard, for a cumulative effect that adds exclamation points to the fresh, bracing pleasure of a raw oyster.
Of course black and gold oysters beg the question of a possible purple and gold combination, but Brennan hasn’t been able to source any purple fish eggs yet.
“But you know LSU fans will ask anyway,” said Brennan.

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