Oh, Shucks!

Where to Find the Best Oysters –– and Build-Your-Own Bloody Mary Bars to wash them down

written by Colleen Ann McNally and HEATHER KW BROWN | photography courtesy of ALAN BROOKS; ERIC BROWNING | NORMAN’S LANDING; LAUREN RUBINSTEIN; THE BIG KETCH; DRIFT FISH HOUSE & OYSTER BAR; SAMANTHA TAYLOR

I HAVE A THEORY that there are two types of people: those who can eat oysters by the dozen, and those who haven’t tried them yet. It’s a food often surrounded by as much romance as rumor. As Jonathan Swift famously said, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.”

Historically a staple of the American diet, a recent resurgence in popularity has led to a rise in raw bars across metro Atlanta, taking away the guesswork and resulting in more opportunities to love, or learn to love, oysters. Since our city isn’t exactly coastal, chefs are sourcing their bounty from all over our continent – and they’re picky. Here are four places where you can jump headfirst or simply dip your toes into becoming a local connoisseur.

If you fall into the second category of my theory, and are willing to negotiate that status, test the waters at NORMAN’S LANDING.
      This fish camp-like standby in Cumming serves more than 2,000 oysters a week, but not just any old shellfish. We cracked open the case with Bill Norman himself, who has been known to think ahead of the crowd. After all, when he began building his restaurant in 1995 on a 3-acre piece of land – then what was “the middle of nowhere” – people thought he was crazy. More than 20 years later and now surrounded by one of metro Atlanta’s fastest growing suburbs, Norman continues to serve the community in more ways than one. He’s shared his success by donating more than $2.1 million dollars to charity; meanwhile, the family-friendly atmosphere and quality expected at Norman’s Landing has remained the same.
      Norman orders his oysters through Revere Meat Co., who searched high and low for a quality oyster worthy of a “house special.” The result was the Skinny Dipper, sourced from True Chesapeake Oyster Co. in the southernmost point of Maryland. Revere is the only vendor in the region that supplies ’em.
      Because they are farm-raised in cages that keep oysters elevated above the sea floor and are sustainably harvested, Skinny Dippers are available year-round and have a consistent profile: a unique, medium brine, soft-salt flavor that you won’t find in any other Maryland oyster. True Chesapeake Oyster Co. takes pride in the fact these oysters are exceptionally crisp and clean with plump, buttery meat inside. In fact, they hand select each, ensuring a deep cup and a solid 3- to 4-inch shell.
      Norman’s favorite thing about the raw oysters is that flavor, and flavor is also exactly what he said surprises most people who try them for the first time. Go bold and order a dozen on the half shell, or first-timers may enjoy their most popular and more approachable option: steamed oysters with Cajun spices and fresh Parmesan. normanslanding.com

Even in January, THE BIG KETCH SALTWATER GRILL aims to make you feel as laid-back as you might be on a summer day at the beach. Weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m., both the Roswell and Buckhead locations offer half-off a dozen raw oysters. You can also find them fried golden brown and served with house made spicy rémoulade dipping sauce. But as the menu simply states “Chef’s daily selection,” inquiring minds want to know – from where do these oysters come?

We learned that decisions are made at the chef’s discretion based on seasonality, and Chef Derek Dollar on Canton Street’s current choice can differ from Chef Garrett Techmyer picks on Roswell Road. Selections are estimated to change every two months or so, and if you head in this month, you can savor and slurp from shells harvested in the Gulf of Mexico’s Louisiana Bay.

Rowan Jacobsen, an authority on the subject and author of the new release “The Essential Oyster: A Salty Appreciation of Taste and Temptation,” maintains a comprehensive list – from Apalachicola to Zen – along with tasting notes, maps and illustrations at oysterguide.com.

“Thank the famed Gulf oyster for keeping oysters from being an exclusive treat,” Jacobsen wrote on the website. “Oysters grow like weeds down in the Gulf. They are still natural-set, still wild, more or less, and still affordable – more or less.” He goes on to cite the lower salinity levels and warmer temperatures of the Gulf for protecting wild oysters from certain diseases in a way that hasn’t happened in the Chesapeake, as well as allowing oysters to never go dormant.

“What this means is that Gulf oysters don’t change in flavor throughout the year as much as northern oysters. They are a little fatter in winter, a little thinner in summer, but always mild and somewhat soft — they relax on the half shell in a way cold-water oysters don’t. Gulf oysters are usually sold as generic oysters —indicative of a region that pays less attention to the nuances of different raw oysters than to their culinary possibilities. After all, this is the land that invented Oysters Rockefeller, Po’ Boys, Barbecued Oysters and myriad other 2 oyster concoctions.” thebigketch.com

If “concoctions” call to you, TIN CAN OYSTER BAR in Town Brookhaven has clever ones. Unlike its Sandy Springs sister location, which features a full menu of seafood items, the newer iteration of Tin Can is more focused on the oyster. A chalkboard behind the raw bar boasts current offerings and on separate visits within the same week, I saw two unique lists.
      Speaking of one’s sibling, Tin Can is the latest creation by Arte Antoniades and Nik Panagopoulos, the family best known for the original Fishmonger Restaurant and Teela Taqueria. Panagopoulos travelled extensively to sample and source these fruits of the sea, comparing how various regions produce their own variety like wine grapes. Wine – or my favorite, Champagne – also pairs well with oysters and Tin Can offers bubbly to fit your price point, from Belstar Prosecco to Veuve Clicquot.
      On a cold winter day, an order out of the oven isn’t a bad idea. Their oysters “Rockerfella” is a play on the New Orleans-style dish, baked with cream of spinach, a garlic sauce and bread crumbs. For those that like it extra hot, try the baked Gulf oysters in garlic jalapeño butter and topped with Parmesan cheese. Can’t convince your company to do the same? Tin Can’s other options, including their creative takes on lobster rolls, gourmet grilled cheeses and “Toasties” – open-faced sandwiches on H&F country bread – can please any appetite. tincanfishhouse.com

 For those ready to delve deeper, cast your anchor down at DRIFT FISH HOUSE & OYSTER BAR at The Avenue East Cobb. This isn’t the first time we’ve waxed poetic about Drift, and it likely won’t be the last.      

The raw bar’s menu is typically a rotating list of eight delicious options, often changing throughout the day/ night as fresh oysters arrive. The last time we paid a visit, we shucked and sampled four that are available from reputable purveyors and farms year round, recruiting help from Executive Chef Brendan Keenan to explain the flavorful divergences: Duxbury Bay from Massachusetts (“typically very briny, sweet buttery finish”), Humbolt Gold from California (“moderate California brine, deep cup, strong shell”), Mato’s from Louisiana (“large with mild, sweet light brine”) and James River oysters from Virginia (“plump, meaty, mild”). Hold off on the saltines, cocktail sauce and vinegar condiments for a round to see if you can taste the nuances, too.

“Our guests have been great about trying all the different varieties of oysters we offer,” Keenan said, pointing out the Gulf oysters are very popular during happy hour and the Northern Atlantic varieties are another fan favorite. We’ve also laid eyes and tastebuds on offerings ranging from Johns River, Ma. to Steamboat Island, Wa. and Alpine Bay and Beausoleils from Canada’s Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick provinces, respectively.

Oysters are priced individually, but Drift also offers happy hour prices between 5 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 3 to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. These specials include half-priced half-shell oysters and $1 “buck-a-shuck” oysters of the day. That’s a pretty great deal for satiating a foodie’s thrill of trying something new, not to mention helping the environment. Whether farmed or naturally occurring, oysters act as water filters, keeping our oceans clean and ecosystems intact –  making them even more lovable. driftoysterbar.com 

Though not quite like peanut butter and jelly or biscuits and gravy, the combo of oysters and Bloody Marys certainly make a good team, not to mention it rolls off the tongue almost as easily as it goes down the hatch. Having our fill of oysters, we went in search of build-your-own-beverage bars around the Northside. Turns out, we might be partial to Bloody Mary bars. Anyone else thirsty?

HUGO’S IN ROSWELL is well known for its oyster line up and impressively so, but not many are familiar with its inspiring build-your-own-Bloody Mary bar. Insider tip: once you’ve sipped on your own concoction, try the Monster Bloody Mary, a lobster Bloody Mary unlike anything you’ve ever tasted.
      According to Jonathan Gorman, general manager for Hugo’s, The Lobster Bloody Mary was done as a surprise for a guest’s birthday to make the experience a memorable one.
      “It is a great way to start a Sunday morning with a party of four at the table,” he said. “The lobster was accompanied by four blackened shrimp, two buffalo chicken tenders, an explosion of skewered veggie and meats, then finished with a sparkler candle. We have done this multiple times for guests that got word of it.”       Well, word is officially out now! While we’re disclosing information, we might as well share that Hugo’s Bloody Mary contains The Bay Seasoned Vodka, Charleston Bold and Spicy Bloody Mary Mix, and a little dash of extra flavor to make the perfect Bloody. hugosoysterbar.com

MUSS & TURNER’S SPICY BLOODY MARY MIX will infuse plenty of bite to go along with your brunch. You can, of course, choose to build your own concoction or you can trust Executive Chef Todd Mussman’s signature recipe, aptly dubbed “Mussy’s.” Rather brunch and go? Mussman shared his recipe for those wishing to channel their inner mixologist at home. mussandturners.com

Some of us simply prefer bubbles to Bloody Mary fixins, so we headed to 101 STEAK in Vinings to tinker with our drinks at their Libation Station. By that, we mean you can make a Bloody Mary on one side or relish in a rare 7 make-your-own-mimosa moment, complete with fresh fruit, juice and plenty of bubbly on the other.
101steakatl.com