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Monday, October 1, 2012

Big Crowds for a Briny Feast

Big Crowds for a Briny Feast

Yesterday, on a small section of St. Peter Street in St. Paul, a sold-out crowd celebrated Meritage’s 2nd annual Oysterfest. Chef-owner Russell Klein flew in 25,000 examples of some of the country's finest and most sought-after oysters for the event. A perfect sunny day greeted the estimated 1,500 guests as they lined up to oyster-filled tubs of ice, while teams of shuckers did their best to keep up with demand. During the slurping frenzy, six chefs from Butcher & the Boar, Salty Tart, Vincent, Heartland, Haute Dish, and Meritage competed in an oyster shucking competition with Butcher’s incomparable Jack Riebel taking the win.

oyster openingAmongst the visiting oystermen in attendance, CJ “the oyster dude” Husk from Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury Mass., a former Boston bike messenger with a baseball cap and long beard, gave a short oyster-opening demo before the event. He explained that, “it’s more about getting the knife into the hinge than twisting. Then, once you’re in, pull the knife against the muscle, cutting it clean without gouging the oyster.” Most restaurant workers I know open oysters by pushing them onto a cutting board with a towel as protection. Then with a substantial amount of effort, they pry the oyster open.

Not my man CJ “the oyster dude.” He cradled the oyster in one hand, no board or towel necessary, and easily slipped the knife into the hinge. The trick, he said, was to place the tip of your pointer finger near the tip of the knife. The fingertip acts as a brake, and the knife only pushes into the oyster a small distance—maybe an 1/8 inch. Less effort is needed and “not much of the knife needs to get inside anyway.” Having a sharp pointed oyster knife helps, and Island Creek sells a good example on their website for $20.

Beyond technique, the oysters from Island Creek tasted fresh and briny, like a stolen kiss from the Atlantic (although my nine-year-old Sonia might have disagreed). They’re so good that Thomas Keller uses them on his famed “oysters and pearls” dish, in which oysters nestle in tapioca and spoonfuls of caviar. “We hand pick Kellor’s oysters. He likes them round with a deep cup for more juice. We put them in a pile called the PS pile—ya know, for Per Se, his New York restaurant. "Here, this would be a good one for the PS pile," he said, and grabbed a round, perfect-looking oyster from the tub.

Island Creek sells their oysters retail with next-day delivery at $1.50 each for a 100-count bag. For less than the gratuity at Per Se, you could get the crew together for a world-class oyster fest in your own backyard. Do me a favor though. Don’t tell them I told you about the PS pile.

Posted on Monday, October 1, 2012 in Permalink

Comments may be edited for length, clarity, or appropriateness.

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Oct 3, 2012 07:50 am
 Posted by  Not Mentioned

Crowd size and management during the first few hours resulted in a feeling of chaos and near-panic.

Typical of many events like this, it was O-V-E-R-S-O-L-D with last minute walk-ups.

The VIPs took it in the shorts, because their one real perk of 'unlimited' oysters was difficult to realize with the mega and slow moving lines.

Running out of multiple beverage options. Overwhelmed employee shuckers.

Still, the oysters (25,000 shucked) were top notch and the day was spectacular. Crowd mellowed late in the day.

Meritage took some heat for all of the above, and made an appropriate gesture for the VIP holders, with a free dozen oysters the next time they return to the restaurant.

Which is fine, but I"ll would skip next time and simply Oyster it up at Meritage in a more civilized setting. Plus: now I know what ones to order.

Oysterfest II: a victim of the Oysterfest I success.

Oct 3, 2012 10:08 pm
 Posted by  JasonRoss

This is a fair criticism of the fest.

Especially early on in the fest, the lines stretched long and low grumbles seemed to move through the crowds. Perhaps, Meriatge should have made a per trip limit to keep the lines moving faster. I saw people ordering 15 an d20 oysters at a time. That ends up being 5-10 minutes per customer with a line 30 deep.

By the afternoon the crowds had had calmed a bit and it seemed most people were having a good time.

On a side note, one of my students worked as a shucker, and described the experience while rubbing her sore fingers as "painful".

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TC Taste answers your restaurant and dining questions, dishes on latest discoveries, reflects on breaking news, and generally bring the plate to the page with a skilled crew of experts: Minnesota Monthly Senior Editor Rachel Hutton, Sustainable Food Correspondent Marie Flanagan, Home Cook Stephanie Meyer, Chef Jason Ross, Savvy Mom Kristin Boldon, Food Writer Joy Summers, and Drinks & Real Food Senior Editor Mary Subialka. Learn more about the TC Taste bloggers.

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