Guide to Finding Great Oysters in the Granite State

Whether you're a buck-a-shuck regular or new to the world of oysters, here's what you need to know about finding and enjoying these delicacies of the sea

Oysters are the perfect way to start a meal or simply satisfy a desire for something perfectly fresh, infinitely interesting and salty as the sea. It’s that taste of brine, snap of raw meat and variety of subtle flavors that makes them so addictive. Besides, they are a healthy mouthful too, with fewer than 100 calories per dozen and loads of zinc, other minerals and omega 3s. With local offerings now available, they seem somehow less exotic.

Oyster bars are hot on the scene. With Row 34 coming to Portsmouth offering their prized Island Creek oysters, and Jay McSharry and Matt Louis opening Franklin Oyster House, also in Portsmouth, the some-like-it-raw crowd has never been happier. Both houses offer fried versions and other options for dining, but the heart of the menu is devoted to ice-cold fresh oysters, craft draught beers and creative cocktail pairings.

The real beauty of a plate of oysters is the range of flavors discernible — flavor influenced simply by their growing environment.

Oysters are named for the places they are grown and it’s that terroir (or merroir, meaning from the sea) that influences their characteristic flavors. Salinity of water, of course, directly influences their brine as does the varieties of plankton that they filter feed. Nothing is totally predictable, as the flavor can also change with water temperature and the seasons. Skip Bennett, founder of Island Creek Oysters, found that simple elevation exposed those oysters to different plankton, giving them a unique flavor profile and delicate texture. Those racks are situated in the 34th row of his nursery and are offered when available at the eponymous Boston and Portsmouth restaurants named Row 34.

Much like grape varietals, tastes are influenced by their location, and oysters are a joy to explore and savor. East Coast varieties are all the same species: Crassostrea virginica. They are brinier than their West Coast cousins, but there are exceptions. Their shells have smooth ridges, are uniform in color and have a teardrop shape. East Coast varieties are grown in the Pacific too, but their flavor profiles are influenced by differences in water temperature.

Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas) are native to the pacific coast of Asia. They have rough shells  with ruffled edges, are creamy and can finish with a fruity flavor. They are sweeter and less briny than their East Coast cousins.

Kumamoto are their own species, originally from Japan, and are the sweetest of all. They are small, have a deep cup and are considered a delicacy.

In general, oysters from the warm waters of the Gulf are large, plump and mostly used for frying or stew — still a good thing. It’s the cold waters of New England that produce crisp and flavorful oysters enjoyed best raw so, especially in the summer, look for varieties from the north.

  • Maine: Damariscotta, Glidden Point, Pemaquid and Belon (rare)
  • Massachusetts: Duxbury, Wellfleet, Plymouth Rock and Island Creek (Row 34)
  • Prince Edward Island: Malpeque, Colville Bay and Raspberry Point
  • New Brunswick: Beausoleil, Northumberland and Lamèque
  • Nova Scotia: Cape Breton, Cape North
  • British Columbia (West Coast varieties): Imperial Eagle Channelo, Black Pearl and Buckley Bay

Consider the Great Bay Oyster

Historically and ecologically, oysters are important to the health of Great Bay’s estuary. After all, Native Americans named a feeding water source the Oyster River. As filter feeders, a single oyster can cleanse 30 gallons of water a day. The Nature Conservancy and the University of New Hampshire, together with other partners, are rebuilding the degraded oyster reef habitat. Three and a half million oysters have been added to the system since 2009 while the restored reefs help maintain fish nurseries and eelgrass beds.

Although oyster seed is inexpensive, the trip to the raw bar is fraught with predation, disease and hard work, but the economics look appealing to aspiring farmers of the sea. Several commercial oyster farmers are working with the project and selling their oysters to local seafood restaurants, including Surf Seafood and Franklin Oyster House. Fat Dog was established in 2011 and began retailing in 2013 and are offered at Row 34 and Franklin Oyster House. Fox Point Oysters is operated by Laura Ward. Her oysters are offered at the Carriage House in Rye and Newick’s of Dover. Goat Island Oyster Company has relationships with Surf and Jumpin’ Jay’s Fish Cafe. Other farmers include Moose Cove, Wagon Hill and Little Grizzlies, all available at Franklin.

With Great Bay offerings in the mix and top-rated oysters from up and down the East Coast, it’s time to savor the sea and support your local oyster farmer. 

Savoring Your First Oyster

Discovering oysters for the uninitiated is a challenge that generally needs to be bolstered by peer pressure and a classic gin martini. It’s a pretty simple technique. With the oyster fork, check to see that, indeed, the shucker has loosened the meat from the shell. After giving a thankful nod to a living creature, delicately lift the half shell from the bed of ice, being careful not to lose the creature’s liquid pooling in the shell.

Have the smooth edge of the shell facing you and lift to your nose and inhale. The aroma should transport you to the sea. Open your mouth and let the meat slide in. Give it two or three chews. Savor the brine. Is it too salty? Some people enjoy the salt while others prefer milder varieties. Swallow.

For beginners, it is recommended to start with a small oyster and have the first one naked. That’s the only way to experience its real flavor before it is masked by a mignonette (light sauce made with shallots, champagne vinegar and dry white wine) or worse, Tabasco sauce. The beauty of the oyster bar is that the server can offer suggestions based on preferences. Select at least two each of the varieties, and start mild and finish with the most briny. Eventually, you will eschew all condiments. Naked is best.

The Story in a Shell

Island Creek Oyster farmers let their best oysters spawn under warm water conditions, after choosing  those with the best genetics — a disease-resistant fast-grower with a deep cup to hold a meaty oyster. While spawning, the oysters spew out gametes or larvae that start the process of creating an oyster. It takes several tank changes in controlled conditions before the simple organisms start to set their shells. Some oyster farmers cast the seed at this point into the ocean for wild harvesting while others purchase seed oysters, growing them out in cages of various sizes while they develop larger shells. If you look at an oyster shell carefully, you can see the first hard shell the oyster produced at the tip of the shell.

The perfect oyster shape is teardrop with a deep cup. Some farmers chip off the ends of the oyster to promote that shape. In all, it can take one and a half to three years for an oyster to mature. Looking again closely at the shell, you can see the growth rings as the oyster grows more in summer and less in the winter.

Oyster Bars, Offerings and Buck-a-Shuck*

Atlantic Grill
Oysters on the half shell ($2.50, 12 for $24)
Raw bar also includes clams, shrimp, king crab and a seafood tower.

Bedford Village Inn*
Buck-a-Shuck Monday through Wednesday

Burtons Grill*
Wednesdays, starting at 4 p.m. until supplies last
$1 oysters and cocktail shrimp

The Centennial
Oysters on the half shell, market price

Demeters Steakhouse
Oysters on the half shell ($3)
Shellfish tower ($56)

Dinnerhorn Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar
Six Blue Point oysters on the half shell ($12.95)

The Dolphin Striker
Oysters 6 for $12, 12 for $20

Epoch Restaurant
Oysters on the half shell ($3)

Franklin Oyster House*
Operated by Matt Louis, co-owner of Moxy
Eight or more oyster selections, with at least four from Great Bay daily
Look for $1.25 oyster specials at happy hour. The $.25 will go to reclamation projects in Great Bay.

Hooked Seafood Restaurant
Full raw bar with market price oysters on the half shell

Hanover Street Chophouse
Raw bar includes oysters on the half shell, $16/$30

Jumpin’ Jay’s Fish Café*
Oysters $3, Buck-a-Shuck in the fall on Tuesdays
Raw bar also includes, shrimp cocktail, snow crab claws and littleneck clams

Library Restaurant at the Rockingham House
Oysters on the half shell ($2.50)

Latitudes at Wentworth
New Castle,
Local oysters are part of the chilled seafood platter. ($39) Terrific views

Martingale Wharf
Oysters on the half shell ($2.50)

Not Your Average Joe’s*
Buck-a-Shuck on Mondays evenings, Nashua location only

The Oar House
Oysters on the half shell ($2.50)

110 Grill*
Happy hour, Sunday through Thursday, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.
$1 oysters and shrimp cocktail, 1/2 off select drafts and signature cocktails.

Pearl Restaurant & Oyster Bar
Choice of six oysters ($2.75)

The Restaurant at Burdick’s
Oysters on the half shell are part of their French bistro tradition.

Row 34
Second location for Boston’s Row 34 is in trendy Portwalk Place across from the British Beer Company. Ownership is also involved with Island Creek Oyster Bar that supplies their own oysters from Island Creek. Row 34 refers to oysters that are racked and bagged and kept off the bottom for a delicate shell and meat. Not always available, but if they are on the oyster list, order them. ($2.50 to $3)

Surf Seafood*
Nashua and Portsmouth,
Buck-a-Shuck the last Wednesday of the month, Nashua location only
Wednesday, 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Two-Fifty Market
Sheraton Hotel, Portsmouth,
Oysters on the half shell (6 for $15)

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