Eating Oysters at the Old Port Sea Grill
- 93 Commercial Street
- Portland, ME
- (207) 879-6100
After I was invited down to Portland for an oyster tasting at the Old Port Sea Grill, I first tried to remember the last time an oyster had passed my lips. It had been quite some time, but not for any reason I could put my finger on. If you’re like me, oysters are just not what pops into your head when you think about going out for some fresh seafood. In the pantheon of the foods of Maine, many the bounty of our clean, cold waters, we tend to think, particularly in warmer weather, of the steamed lobster, crab rolls and cakes, scallops, steamers, plates of mussels, fried clams, and grilled sea bass and salmon. Why not the oyster?
Quite simply, they’re not inexpensive, got a bad rap long ago as potentially harmful, and up until quite recently hadn’t been raised locally in any quantity for decades. If you could get them, you weren’t sure how fresh they were or where they came from.
Well, I am happy to report that Jeff Leeber has set out to change all that and to help re-establish the Maine oyster to its proper place – served on the half-shell, garnished or not, over a bed of cracked ice, at his restaurant on Commercial Street. Half the fun is going there on a busy weekend night, sitting on a comfortable stool at the long bar, a gracefully curving affair of smoky polished concrete, watching as the counterman plucks fresh oysters from the deep well of ice and opens them in front of you. Two slates hang above it with the varieties available that day, a parade of names local and exotic—Gerrish Island, Spinney Creek, Chesapeake Bay, Kumamoto, Quilcene-- that tempt the wise into trying a selection.
Sitting at a corner table one afternoon with Leeber and his equally intense young chef, Chris Bassett, a friend and I slurped our way through everything on offer as the two filled our heads with their accumulated oyster wisdom. As Chris labored with his stubby oyster knife, several things became quickly apparent. They are obsessed by oysters and go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that what is set in front of you is the cleanest, freshest, most carefully handled oyster you’ve ever eaten. Clearly, they’re hoping you’ll come to share their obsession.
“Right now I have seven varieties on the menu, four from Maine,” Chris told us, “and we can have as many as twelve during the summertime to give people a taste of all the different waters. Each specific water you pull the oysters from makes them taste different, just like a grape that may be the same variety but grown in a different region will make wine that tastes very different.”
As well as providing a rich mix of river, bay, and gulf environments, Maine’s cold waters have one important advantage. Oyster producers in more southerly locations, particularly the Gulf of Mexico, “don’t have the luxury of having these beautiful deep cold waters that make a natural refrigeration process.” Jeff said. With good tides and unpolluted water, Maine oysters, in his opinion, are naturally cleaner and fresher. Those same waters, combined with our fierce winter weather, however, can be a curse as well as a boon. The Sea Grill’s oysters come from places as various as Freeport, West Bath, Eliot, New Haven, and Edgecomb, among others, but are not always available in the depths of winter. “Some are harvested by scuba divers,” Jeff continued. “Sometimes the water’s too cold, the currents are too strong. As well as a good variety of Maine oysters, we do source from far away.” he added. “The Kumamoto, you don’t see that in most places. That’s a seedling originally from Japan and now harvested in Washington State.”
Finally, Chris set the oysters in front of us, perching the plates on raised stands, “so you don’t spill the liquor as you lift it to your mouth,” he said. They were as different in appearance as one could imagine. Some had ruffled shells like a pleated skirt while others were as flat as a shovel blade. The most popular oyster at the bar is the meaty Damariscotta, from New Haven, a medium-sized, not overly rich, or even salty oyster when compared with the Penobscot, which has a stronger flavor and more of the tang we associate with this shellfish. The tiny, dark Kumamotos are not much bigger than your thumb, but have an intensity that provoked my friend to call them “the single malt of oysters.” By the time we got to the sweet, almost woody Gerrish Islands, I was reminded of a chef telling me once that the experience of eating an oyster with its liquor was like taking a bite of the sea. Sweet, salty, woody, musky, “intensely oysterish,” – the particular words weren’t that important. What was fun was to taste and see what came to mind.
After the first plate had been emptied and I could begin to pay attention to more than the flavor, I began to notice a few more details of the thought that had gone into their preparation. First, each oyster’s shell had been scrubbed by hand with a brush. As they serve fifty to sixty orders of a half-dozen each night, that’s a lot of hours spent at the sink. But they had also been cleaned inside, naturally, which is why there were no unpleasant crunchy surprises when you bit into them. “You’re putting them in your mouth,” Chris said, “and a clean oyster, no sand or mud on it, that makes all the difference.” Some shallow-water varieties go through a further process called depuration, where, “they’re suspended on racks in flowing sterile sea water so that the oysters purge themselves of sand, grit, and contaminants,” he explained. And then, finally, “we check the body of the oyster after we open it and give it the nose test, just to make sure.”
Lemon, shallot mignonette, or the thick house cocktail sauce (with a dollop of pure horseradish to turn up the heat), the choice of garnish is yours. But, when it comes to oyster protocol, Jeff is not at all a purist. “Hot sauce, lemon, just horseradish – it depends on what you’re in the mood for.” The same goes for the accompanying beverage of choice. “The oyster can stand up to a lot of the lighter, white wines,” he said, shrugging. “But lots of people like a good beer, champagne, or even vodka.” For the truly adventurous, the bar offers “oyster shots,” the oyster plunged into a shot glass of iced vodka with a dash of hot sauce, the whole to be downed in a gulp. The Sea Grill also offers a full menu (and more than fifty wines, too), but what you won’t find on it, with a very rare exception, is oysters cooked in any way. After two hours in Jeff and Chris’ company and with the taste of the sea still fresh in my mouth, I found that perfectly reasonable.
The Old Port Sea Grill and Raw Bar is open seven days a week serving lunch from 11:30-3pm, dinner from 5pm-10 pm Sunday to Thurs, 5 pm to 11pm Friday and Saturday. Jeff has another location, the Falmouth Sea Grill, 215 Foreside Road Route 188.
Posted by Michael at July 28, 2005
All material ©2005 Michael S. Sanders