Seafood Spectacular: Oysters
Our suggestions on where you should get your best shucks.
SECTION 2: OYSTERS
Forget that old adage about oysters and months ending in the letter “R.” Oysters, like these from Ryleigh's, pictured, are now available year-round. Luxurious, yet unpretentious, these bivalves are having their must-order moment.
Over the years, the bay’s once-rich oyster beds have been decimated. But thanks to restoration efforts, sustainable sourcing, and oyster farming—aka oyster aquaculture—business is booming again. Our suggestions on where you should get your shucks:
Don’t underestimate this little Fells Point corner bar with its glass-brick windows and Old Baltimore charm. Instead, sit at the bar and order a round of Chesapeake Bay oysters, which get shucked in front of you, then served with fresh horseradish and an array of house-made sauces. Peruse the small menu, which teems with seafood snacks like mussels in a swoon-worthy wine, fennel, shallot, and butter sauce, and tuna tartare, which is almost too beautiful to eat (though we happily obliged). Trust us—one visit and you’ll be a regular in no time. 1900 Aliceanna St., 410-327-0303
Main Street Oyster House
You’ll go gaga over the menu at Main Street Oyster House. The well-rounded oyster selection wows (with Chesapeake Golds from Hoopers Island representing the Eastern Shore), and they come in plenty of preparations, including raw, baked, and fried. They’re packed into the Eastern Shore Steam Pot, too, alongside steamed shrimp and littleneck clams. Just be sure to take a second from your seafood to admire the décor, with its hand-painted maritime murals by local artists. 119 S. Main St., Bel Air, 443-371-7993
Nick’s Oyster Bar
You probably don’t know the oyster stand in this historic Federal Hill market by name, but you might know that this little slice of South Baltimore is the place for cheap oysters and prodigious pours of beer. Open since 1972, Nick’s was way ahead of the wave. Pull up a barstool, slurp some local bay beauties, and enjoy this pearl of an oyster bar. Cross Street Market, 1065 S. Charles St. 410-685-2020
Whatever your bivalve predilection—raw, grilled, fried, swimming in a stew or stuffed into a po’boy—this oyster house has your cravings covered. Slurp some hair-of-the-dog shooters at brunch or partake in Oyster Hour with dollar shucks. Whenever you go, take a seat at the bar and watch as master oyster-openers shuck local lovelies. With an approachable menu, helpful staff, and upcoming oyster guide app, Ryleigh’s is working to turn even the most inexperienced oyster eater into a mollusk maven. We love all the locations, but the newest iteration across from the Meyerhoff has fast become our favorite. Several locations, including 1225 Cathedral St., 410-539-2093
Thames Street Oyster House
It’s no secret that this New-England-cum-Fells-Point oyster house is where you go for impeccable seafood—like the glitzy raw-bar towers and award-winning lobster rolls—and a menu full of delectable, sea-centric dishes. Even so, it’s the oysters—from the brackish waters of the Chesapeake to the shores of the salty Pacific Northwest—that are the real menu must. With over a dozen different oysters served on a silver bed of ice along with fresh horseradish, cocktail sauce, and an array of outstanding house-made mignonettes, Thames Street would gladly be our last meal on Earth. 1728 Thames St., 443-449-7726
This unique recipe comes from Southern Maryland, where barbecue is big. “They have a lot of smokehouses down there,” says chef John Shields, “and they do a lot with pork products and seafood. This recipe brings all those elements together.”
24 fresh oysters
1 1/2 to 2 cups your favorite barbecue sauce
24 pieces (2 inches square) bacon
Preheat oven to 450°F. Shuck oysters, keeping meat in deep part of the shell. Place 1 tablespoon barbecue sauce on each oyster. Top with 1 piece of bacon. Make a layer of rock salt on a heatproof tray and arrange oysters on it. Bake for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the oysters begin to curl at the edges and the bacon browns slightly. Serves 4 to 6.
“At a party, we had unshucked oysters on display. A guy grabbed one of the unshucked oysters, put cocktail sauce on the shell, and attempted to eat it.”
—Dylan Salmon of Dylan’s Oyster Cellar
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Maryland oyster knives help get the job done
Maryland oyster knives help get the job done
Through the ages, people have found their way inside an oyster by any means necessary, but the oyster knife, made in Crisfield in the early 1900s, certainly made extractions a lot easier. “There are several different styles of knives,” explains Pete Lesher, chief curator at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels. “Some had handles and blades made entirely of steel and those are considered cracking knives that are used at the oyster’s hinge, but the wooden-handled stabbing knives that open from the bill, pictured, right, are considered the native way of opening an oyster on the Chesapeake.”
Eastern shore oyster stabbing knives from the early and mid 1900s.
Maryland oyster tins are relics from the glory days.
In the old, forgotten pockets of Baltimore and beyond, you’ll find oyster cans—in every color and size, candy-coated or marred by layers of rust. The tiny tins were born here in the 1800s, when the industry established itself on the docks of the Inner Harbor and along the shores of the Chesapeake. With the invention of canning and the expansion of railroads, what had once been a local commodity could now be carried across the country. And appetites for Chesapeake oysters only grew. In its heyday, Maryland was harvesting 15 million bushels a year. The tin's labels emphasized the oyster’s taste, health, and heritage. Today, the canneries are long gone, but as the oyster industry attempts a comeback, the cans—little metal mementos of how it all began—remain a piece of our tidewater past. — LW