One of the joys of visiting New Orleans, particularly in the fall, is the endless supply of fresh Gulf oysters. If you’re concerned about the oil spills of the past decade, put those worries aside: the Gulf of Mexico has been cleaned up, and the fish and shellfish emanating from it are pristine.
If you’re not a fan of raw oysters, the most famous cooked variations include Rockefeller and Bienville, both invented at Antoine’s in the French Quarter. Oysters Rockefeller derived its name from the richness of the sauce. There are many versions, but the usual preparation includes sautéed greens (usually watercress and spinach), garlic, butter, breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese and either Pernod or Herbsaint. Bienville is similar but slightly earthier, normally incorporating mushrooms and chicken stock into the filling. Many NOLA restaurants serve a simpler dish of char-grilled oysters that are topped with garlic, butter, breadcrumbs and cheese before going into the broiler.
Is it safe to eat them raw? Here’s the reality: if you’re a healthy human being, your chances of getting sick from raw oysters is roughly the same as your odds of being prosecuted for removing those white tags from your furniture cushions. If you have diabetes, cancer, liver disease or any ailment of the immune system, it’s not worth the risk. Otherwise, you have little to fear from Vibrio vulnificus, the bacteria that thrives in warm sea water. Of course, you could avoid the summer months entirely, but the low saline content of the Gulf protects most oysters from any danger of contamination.
The result is an oyster on the half-shell that is less briny than its Northern or Pacific counterpart, but also milder, softer and meatier. There are probably hundreds of places in NOLA to eat them, but you want to seek out a specialty establishment: Acme Oyster House, Felix’s Oyster Bar or Oceana Grill. On my recent trip, I had the best oysters at Oceana (corner of Bourbon and Conti) and at Superior Seafood (St. Charles Ave., in the Garden District). Since we were a party of eight, we had the luxury of blanketing the table with them at the start of a meal. Best of all, they’re cheap: the going rate for 12 raw oysters is around $15. Try finding a dozen in any major American city for twice that much.
Laissez les bon temps rouler!
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is forthcoming from Black Opal Books in Spring 2016. For more information, go to amazon.com