Matt Philbrick, raw bar manager and resident oyster expert at The Bar Room in New York’s Midtown East neighborhood, recently shared his bivalve knowledge with us, including how to properly source, dress, and suck down these beloved jewels of the sea.
Describe the perfect oyster — how do you know when you're really slurping the best, or the worst?
While personal tastes vary, good oysters will have a pleasant flavor, similar to the refreshing smell of the ocean. With varying finishes from slightly sweet and citrusy to bold and briny, the best oysters will be harvested during the colder months, meaning you will be eating plumper oyster meat. If you’re tasting a bad oyster, they will have a pungent rotten smell with a cloudy liquor.
You say that the flavors vary from a sweet honeydew taste to a bold and slightly citrus finish — how is this possible, from a shell at the bottom of the sea? And how do you maximize those flavors?
The terroir, or environment in which the oyster is harvested, greatly affects the taste, size, firmness, and liquor (the liquid surrounding the oyster meat). Oysters filter algae and phytoplankton as their primary source of food. The water’s varying mineral levels unique to each ecosystem causes the flavors to vary based on region. Time of year also affects the size and firmness of the oyster. During the summer spawning season, oysters will be smaller and less firm. The more mature oysters harvested in the winter will be large, plump, and oh-so tasty.
What made you decide to add oysters to the menu? Was it a trend you were spotted in the city’s culinary scene?
We’ve seen the popularity of oysters on the rise as restaurants diversify their menus to include more sustainable options. For us, oysters were a natural addition not only for the sustainability aspect, but also as homage to our restaurant’s historical design pieces. In the early 1900s, the centerpiece of our space, our 125-year-old original Anheuser-Busch bar, used to extend to a window where fresh oysters were served daily. Back in Manhattan’s oyster hay day, they were served as both street and fine dining fare. We like the idea of refocusing on this unique delicacy that still holds universal appeal.
Once the restaurant is in possession of the oysters, what does it take to make magic happen? Why don't many people prepare oysters at home?
First, we make sure to source our oysters from the best purveyors, ensuring consistent quality. Once they are delivered, we keep our oysters chilled at optimal temperature, which can be tricky with refrigeration in your own home. We serve them within two days and ensure the shell is tightly closed, indicating that the oyster is still alive.
When it comes time to serve them to our patrons, I am able to help guests decide which variety they will like best, as we are well versed in the regional taste variations. It also takes skill to open the oyster shell and separate the meat to ensure easiest oyster slurping. Once the oyster is open, we serve them with our housemade sauces that add an extra zest to the unique oyster flavors.
We focus our menu on refined simplicity, allowing the naturally occurring flavors of each ingredient to shine. A light squeeze of lemon, a dollop of spicy housemade cocktail sauce, or dash of mignonette sauce enhances the oyster flavors without covering up any of the more subtle tastes.