Food & Drink

Oyster craze leaving Florida varieties behind

Chef Hung Huynh attends the 2014 Oyster Bash during the South Beach Wine and Food Festival.
Chef Hung Huynh attends the 2014 Oyster Bash during the South Beach Wine and Food Festival.

It’s the latest culinary trend popping up on raw bar menus all across South Florida — and it is taking the spotlight at this week’s South Beach Wine & Food Festival.

Close to 10,000 succulent oysters are expected to be served at Friday’s Oyster Bash at the Lure Fishbar inside the Loews Hotel, but if you are looking to sample Florida’s signature Gulf Coast oysters, get ready to be disappointed.

Even outside of festival time, local restaurants from haute cuisine to neighborhood hangouts primarily serve the pleasantly salty, more delicate varieties from the northern East Coast and the Pacific. Blame it in part on scarcity from environmental woes besetting the state’s industry, but local chefs also point to the flavor profile.

“I never acquired a fondness for the Gulf Coast oysters,” said Michael Schwartz, owner of Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in the Design District as well as the higher-end Cypress Room, Harry’s Pizzeria and his namesake restaurant at the Raleigh Hotel in South Beach.

Michael’s Genuine closed for two weeks in November so Schwartz could install an oyster bar. To stock it, “we go where the oysters are best. We like to get East Coast and West Coast oysters.”

While Schwartz and his patrons are big proponents of locally sourced food, he said he doesn’t get many raw-bar requests for Apalachicola Bay oysters, which are “best cooked in a stew or fried.”

Beyond taste, Florida oysters are taking a serious environmental hit. In 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared Apalachicola Bay a commercial fishery disaster, and last year the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said that if new restrictive measures on oyster harvesting don’t work, the industry may need to temporarily shut down to allow the population to recover.

Those troubles are not lost on some South Florida chefs who sell thousands of raw oysters a week — few of them from Florida.

Danny “Chef Staz” Stasi, founding chef and owner of Shuck N Dive Cajun Café in Fort Lauderdale, says he used Florida oysters for a few weeks during the 2010 Gulf oil spill but hasn’t since then.

“The difference is night and day to me,” said the chef, who says 90 percent of the oysters sold at his Cajun restaurant are out of Louisiana waters. “Especially in the summer months when I get very good quality Louisiana oysters and the Florida oysters have really suffered in the summer.”

Stasi says that aside from issues with the “taste, quality and consistency” of Florida oysters, a long-running water war between Florida and Georgia also has made them difficult to come by.

“Atlanta and its surrounding areas are using up all the water that is desperately needed to rebuild Florida’s oyster business. I don’t see that [changing] anytime soon.”

Both Florida and Alabama have been at odds with Georgia over Lake Lanier, which Georgia uses as a reservoir for the Atlanta area’s growing water needs. Florida contends that Georgia’s water consumption is decreasing the amount of fresh water flowing from the lake into the Apalachicola River and Apalachicola Bay, altering the mix of water oysters need to thrive.

In response to a lawsuit filed by Florida, Georgia has accused its southern neighbor of poor water management. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently hearing the case.

A persistent drought, as well as disease brought on by increased salinity in the bay, have only added to the industry’s woes.

The devastating conditions have meant that fishermen can barely harvest enough oysters to pay for gassing up their boats — much less fill up restaurants’ raw bars. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, the amount of oyster meat commercially harvested in the bay dropped by 58 percent between September 2012 and February 2013.

But recently, there have been signs of a comeback.

“We’ve had some really good flows, a little better than last year, but we’re still a long way from getting back to normal harvesting time,” said Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association.

Last year, fishermen were pulling in an average of two 60-pound sacks each, Hartsfield said. This year, fishermen are getting an average of four sacks each — still a far cry from the dozens of sacks fishermen filled per day during better times. “Right now what’s getting harvested locally is staying local,” Hartsfield added.

“If we go through another drought or even a low flow season, we’re looking at five to six years and then another 10 years” before the industry can be productive, he said.

At the Midtown Oyster Bar in Miami, Chef Angelo Masarin said that a few customers have asked for the warm water oysters since he launched in November. But as does Schwartz, he prefers oysters from colder temperatures.

“Florida oysters are big, very big, and the water is much warmer,” he said.

Masarin said his favorite oysters come out of a little-known bay off New York’s Fishers Island. He fell in love with the oyster’s flavor profile from the moment he tried it, he said.

Still, as he gets to know his clientele’s taste buds, he’s not completely dismissing the notion of adding Apalachicola Bay oysters to his raw bar.

Danny Serfer, chef and owner of Mignonette, which opened last year in Edgewater, said he would theoretically offer Florida oysters but can’t.

“Apalachicola Bay oysters are popular and people eat them,” Serfer said, “but we don’t even have the opportunity to get them.”

What he and business partner Ryan Roman can easily get are oysters from California, New England and Canada.

“I think those are more popular and elegant oysters,” Serfer said.

Chef David Bracha, owner of the iconic River Oyster Bar in Miami, does serve a variety of Florida oysters, but they’re from the east coast — Sebastian Salts, farmed in the Indian River in Sebastian.

“They are delicious,” he said.

Related stories from Miami Herald