Despite high prices and lower supply, oyster bars and specials proliferate around New Orleans

On a recent night at Café B in Old Metairie, the waitstaff was busy ferrying bowl-shaped platters of raw oysters from the kitchen. Two were bound for Anne Francis, who stacked them one atop the other at her spot at the restaurant’s bar, slurped them down with impressive speed and then reupped with a third dozen, sharing a few of these with her husband, Fred, seated beside her.

“I’ve been eating raw oysters since I was four,” said Francis, a New Orleans native. “I know what I like. I like them salty, I like them cold, I like the taste of the brine. You add a little ambiance, you talk to nice people at the bar; it’s all that together. It’s the whole experience.”

That’s just the sort of passion for oysters that Café B owner Ralph Brennan hoped to tap into when he added raw oysters to the menu last fall. The restaurant installed a small oyster bar, and began selling them for 50 cents each in the bar area (they cost more when ordered in the dining room). But quickly the response outstripped a single shucker’s ability to keep up, so the oyster opening moved to the kitchen where multiple cooks now field what’s become a nightly rush of orders.

“We have a very local clientele here,” said Brennan. “They love seafood, and they love oysters, so we’re trying to give them what they want.”

So are plenty of others. New oyster bars are proliferating around New Orleans, and raw oysters are getting star treatment on the menus of many other restaurants that don’t have designated oyster bars. The local trend, which has been building for a few years now, aligns with the growing popularity of raw oysters across the country.

But it also arrives at a time of tumult for the Louisiana oyster industry.

While oysters are easier than ever to find at restaurants and bars, they have become harder and vastly more expensive to source in Louisiana, which leads the nation in oyster production.

“It’s never been scarcer in my time in the business,” said Al Sunseri, president of P&J Oyster Co., the city’s oldest distributor.

A precise cause for reduced supply is unclear, with industry experts usually pointing to some possible combination of damage to harvest areas from the BP oil disaster in 2010; the string of destructive storms since Hurricane Katrina, which tear up oyster reefs and wreck boats and shore facilities; and freshwater diversion projects, which are employed to help rebuild Louisiana’s ravaged coastline but can change the salinity in oyster growing areas.

What does seem clear, however, is the diminished harvest’s impact on oyster prices.

“The quality is good, but the prices have never been higher, and it’s a lot harder to get the supply you need on a regular basis,” said John Tesvich, chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force and owner of the AmeriPure oyster processing company in St. Mary Parish.

A 100-pound Louisiana oyster sack which might have sold for $30 a few years ago can cost $70 or $75, he said.

Oyster bar boom

The prices have not crimped demand around New Orleans, where deals and happy hour specials still abound (see sidebar for details). Sunseri says this is a time-honored gambit at New Orleans restaurants, which use raw oysters as a loss leader.

“Oysters won’t make you money selling them like that, but they do make people buy beer and drinks and other appetizers that you do make money on,” he said.

What’s more, the market for oysters in New Orleans — especially raw oysters — has been exploding lately. Oyster bars came online at Superior Seafood in 2012, and then in 2013 at Peche Seafood Grill, lakefront restaurants Brisbi’s and Blue Crab and Mr. Ed’s Fish House & Oyster Bar, which replaced longtime oyster destination Bozo’s in Metairie and later added a French Quarter location. Last year brought the new Half Shell Oyster Bar in Mid-City and Trenasse, the restaurant inside the CBD’s InterContinental hotel with a raw bar and lengthy menu of raw and cooked oyster dishes.

Other restaurants have been recently retrofitted to add oyster bars, like the vintage Uptown seafood house Frankie & Johnny’s, Redemption (the Creole restaurant in a Mid-City church), Seither’s Seafood in Harahan, which converted its former retail market into a dedicated oyster parlor, and the Maple Street po-boy shop The Sammich.

“A couple of my cooks know how to shuck oysters, so this gives us a way to double down a bit,” said Sammich owner Michael Brewer. “It gives us another niche in the neighborhood.”

But an oyster bar is not a requisite for an oyster specialty, as menus at newer restaurants as diverse as Marti’s in the French Quarter, Bevi Seafood Co. in Metairie and The Franklin in the Marigny each attest.

To explain the oyster’s recently raised profile, Tesvich looks to the way the fresh product syncs with other dining trends.

“Oysters used to be a commodity, but now it’s a specialty product,” he said. “It’s a way to set yourself apart. The trends are for fresh and local, and oysters embody that.”

Oysters have also begun taking a role similar to the seasonal barroom seafood boil. For instance, at Tracey’s Original Irish Channel Bar, a temporary open air oyster bar takes shape on the sidewalk on Thursdays (starting at 4 p.m.) and Saturdays (starting at noon), when shucker Victor Egana pulls oysters from an ice chest and cracks them open on a folding table.

In Metairie, Winston’s Pub & Patio now sets up an oyster stand on its back deck on Friday afternoons (starting at 4 p.m.).

And since December, Lucy’s Retired Surfers Bar has been converting its outdoor patio bar into a temporary oyster bar, dubbed Lucy’s on the Half Shell, each Friday, Saturday and Sunday (from 4-7 p.m.).

“We do crawfish boils in the spring and summer and this is the same idea,” said Virginia Saussy, the marketing manager for the popular Warehouse District restaurant and bar. “We get a couple sacks each day and when they’re gone, they’re gone.”

More in store?

Restaurateurs say they often have to hustle to keep oysters in stock — with some buying from a rotation of different purveyors — as access to oysters varies, with others picking up sacks directly from suppliers to ensure they nab product.

Looking ahead, Tesvich remains optimistic.

Scarcity and high prices have spurred oyster harvesters to invest more in future cultivation in privately-held coastal areas, and he predicts local supplies will be more consistent a year from now.

Meanwhile, more oyster bars are on the way. Balise, a more casual venture from La Petite Grocery chef Justin Devillier now taking shape in the CBD, will dedicate part of its bar to a prep area for raw oysters and other seafood.

And an oyster bar is part of the design for Sac-a-Lait, a restaurant from New Roads-based chefs Samantha and Cody Carroll, slated to open next month in the Warehouse District’s Cotton Mill apartment building. While the menu will be focused on Louisiana flavors, they’ll serve oysters from East Coast and West Coast areas where the Carrolls visited during a promotional tour after they won the Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off in 2013.

“We saw how other areas do their oyster bars and thought that was interesting,” said Samantha Carroll. “So we’ll serve oysters from other regions, but of course we’ll have Gulf oysters, too.”

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.

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