Wilmington’s Guide to Oysters: Restaurants, Recipes, and History
By Liz Biro
I wear a silver charm in the shape of an oyster on a chain around my neck. I love oysters that much, and not just because they are delicious.
Oysters signal community along the N.C. coast. Gathering around a steam pot or makeshift grill with friends and family for an oyster roast is in our Tar Heel blood. As we shuck, slurp and pass around the obligatory cocktail sauce, warm melted butter, saltine crackers and Pepsi (or a bottle of good bourbon), we commit to connect even when winter’s cold urges us to stay inside.
If we’re not eating oysters in someone’s back yard, we gather at restaurants and oyster bars.
The popularity of oysters is on the rise. They’re replacing chips and pretzels as our favorite cocktail snacks, San Francisco-based national food trend forecaster Andrew Freeman & Co reports. Coastal waters where they live are cleaner these days. Plus, oyster farms are growing. More oysters mean variety and lower prices. We may stick to southeastern North Carolina’s famous salty oysters, my favorite, or sample Washington state’s Olympias, the Pacific’s fruity Kumamotos or the Northeast’s Wellfleets and Bluepoints.
Where can I enjoy local oysters around Wilmington NC?
Wilmington chefs like to give oysters style. Some of the most famous southeastern N.C. oysters are taken from Stump Sound, about an hour north of Wilmington. The best way to have them is in all their raw, salty glory, available at several local restaurants, including Port Land Grille where oysters are always fresh and in season no matter where they come from. If fresh oysters aren’t available, you won’t find them on the menu.
The vinegar and shallot sauce named mignonette is a classic accompaniment to raw oysters, and you’ll see various versions around Wilmington. Chefs at Pembroke’s play with different vinegars. They also have been known to bake oysters with a cornbread, parmesan and country ham topping.
Chef-driven restaurants such as Pembroke’s and Port Land Grille change their menus regularly and offer of-the-moment specials. What this oyster season will bring is delightful to imagine.
Smoke on the Water features local oysters prepared in many ways. Have them on the half shell with a delicious bloody mary granita or enjoy a fried oyster Poboy on true New Orleans Leidenheimer bread. Oysters are also included with steamer pots with shrimp, snow crab legs, steamed corn and red potatoes or as part of fried platter with flouder, shrimp, house cut French fries, coleslaw and house made tarter sauce.
If you’ve never had a chargrilled oyster, head to downtown’s waterfront The Pilot House. The smoky morsels are crowned with a topping of butter, parmesan, garlic, panko crumbs, lemon, hot sauce, cayenne, and chives. Next door, Elijah’s serves oysters Rockefeller, oysters baked in crab dip and fried oysters.
Several varieties of oysters on the half shell are on the menu at PinPoint Restaurant on Market Street downtown. Also offered are baked oysters served three ways, Piperade, with chilis and cornbread; Rockefeller, with wilted greens, Benton’s bacon and Pernod, and Hollandaise, with blue crab and whey hot sauce. Choose just one kind, or better yet, try all three.
What I love best at Elijah’s is the raw bar, where I can get a bucket of steamed oysters, just like the ones I enjoy at backyard oyster roasts. The Crab Shack in Scott’s Hill and Mainsail Restaurant in Surf City have raw bars, too. Sitting by the bar with a light beer and a good friend is my favorite way to eat oysters, usually with an order of fried oysters on the side.
Fried oysters are so tender, crisp and decadent. I like the idea of South Beach Grill’s Maker’s Mark salad topped with fried oysters. Who needs croutons?
When’s the best time of year to eat oysters?
Carolina coast natives won’t eat oysters if the weather is not cold. They’ll tell you to only eat oysters in months whose name contains the letter “R.” The advice dates to the days before refrigerated storage and transport. There is some truth to the rule. Oysters become soft and have a less pleasant flavor in spring and summer when the shellfish are spawning.
If you want to cook oysters at home, keep in mind that you don’t have to buy them in the shell. They’re available pre-shucked and packed. The simplest way to use them is in an old-fashioned oyster stew. The humble recipe is so easy yet elegant enough for a dinner party.
Oyster Stew Recipe
In years past, fishing families along the N.C. coast would simmer oysters in their juice and enrich the broth with cornmeal dumplings. Butter might go in, too. Today, oyster stews usually include milk. No matter how oyster stew is prepared, seasonings should never outshine the oyster’s flavor.
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 quart shucked oysters and their juices
3 cups whole milk
1 cup half and half
Salt and black pepper to taste
In medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add oysters and cook just until edges begin to curl, about 5 minutes. Add milk, salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat until thoroughly heated and oysters are done, about 8 to 10 minutes. Do not boil. Pour into serving bowls and sprinkle with oyster crackers. Serves 4 to 6.
About Liz Biro
Liz Biro spent most of her life in Southeastern North Carolina. These days, she is the food/dining reporter for the Indianapolis Star.
Fortunately, Liz travels south often. She writes food, restaurant and culture stories for us on a regular basis. Besides being a longtime, talented journalist who has covered everything from local fisheries to capital politics, Liz has worked as a chef.
She possesses an abiding passion for good food skillfully prepared with wonderful ingredients. Liz has worked with us for the past two years. We’re delighted that she has an expanded role with Wilmington Today.