We love seafood restaurants that serve fresh seafood. I think you often get the best fresh seafood in an oyster bar or raw bar. So many people in the US rely on frozen seafood, they don’t understand that it’s not the same as fresh. Oftentimes, it’s not their fault. They might live hundreds of miles from the coast, and if they want to enjoy a seafood meal, they might not have much access to anything other than the frozen version. I suppose we’re somewhat spoiled when it comes to great seafood. We live fairly close to the Atlantic Ocean and to the Gulf of Mexico, so fresh seafood is always available, and it’s usually reasonably priced. We also enjoy beach vacations throughout the year, and while we’re there, we always hit several seafood restaurants. We even catch or gather our own seafood. We fish, we crab, we net shrimp, we pick oysters, we search for scallops, and we dig clams. We know what really fresh seafood tastes like!
Because we’re used to fresh seafood, we’re often disappointed with some of the seafood restaurants we frequent. I’m not saying that frozen seafood can’t taste good – it can. Fresh is always better, though. The worst is frozen pre-breaded items like shrimp and fish. All the restaurant cooks have to do is to drop the food in hot oil and give it a quick fry. They’ll save some time and labor doing things this way, but their patrons are the ones who suffer.
When you’re in the mood for dining out at seafood restaurants, look for the ones that serve fresh seafood. Keep in mind that many national chains use a lot of frozen seafood, so they probably aren’t your best bet. At the least, please avoid eateries that serve the pre-breaded frozen stuff!
Do you frequent an oyster bar? We do, whenever we can. In fact, we have three favorite oyster bars: Slider’s, on Amelia Island, Florida; Indian Pass Raw Bar, in Indian Pass, Florida; and A.J.’s Oyster Bar, in Albany, Georgia. We go to A.J.’s the most often because it’s the closest – just forty-five miles to the west of our home. We ate there yesterday, as a matter of fact.
Of these three aforementioned eateries, I’d have to say that A.J.’s is our favorite oyster bar. In fact, it’s on our top two list of favorite seafood restaurants, overall. They serve raw oysters, steamed oysters, and oysters with awesome toppings like bacon, crabmeat, and cheese. They also serve fried seafood, quail, sandwiches, chicken fingers, boiled shrimp, broiled seafood, shrimp salad, crab salad, and lots of sides and appetizers.
What’s so great about a typical oyster bar? I can’t speak for the ones in the rest of the nation, but in Georgia and Florida, these places are usually super laid back, noisy, and fun. That could be partly because so many patrons enjoy a brew or two with their seafood, or it could be because folks are happy because they’re getting a chance to indulge in their favorite foods. Actually, it’s probably some of both.
Allow me to describe a typical oyster bar in the Deep South. Some look like “dives” on the outside. In fact, they might not look too impressive on the inside, either, but don’t let the appearance dissuade you. There’s often an actual bar, along with tables and chairs. Music is usually present, too. It might be booming from a juke box, or it could be in the form of live entertainment. Sometimes there’s a big TV showing a sports event. When the Georgia Bulldogs games are televised, A.J.’s is usually packed, as it was yesterday. You won’t usually see fancy china or linen napkins in oyster bars. You might actually have to eat from Styrofoam plates and use plastic forks.
Fresh oysters are incredible. If you’ve only had canned oysters, you haven’t really tasted the little critters! The two flavors are hardly similar at all. Canned oysters can taste “tinny,” and it seems that much of the natural flavor has been cooked out. That’s no way to eat an oyster!
In my neck of the woods, eating fresh oysters is time consuming. Most oyster bars offer several different oyster dishes, usually six or twelve at the time. It’s common for diners to order six of one flavor, enjoy them, and the order six of another flavor. And, of course, if the oysters are really fresh, you have to wait for the oyster shucker to do his job, and if you order cooked oysters, you have to wait for that, too. The funny thing is that most of the patrons don’t seem to mind the wait.
So…how do you know that the oysters at a raw bar or oyster bar are really fresh? Ask to taste one as soon as you walk through the door. I have several friends who do this, and their requests have never been denied. Really fresh oysters will be slightly salty and taste of the ocean. It should also have a unique smell, much like the sea itself. It’s sort of hard to describe, but you’ll recognize it once you experience it. The shells of fresh oysters should be whole, not broken, and they should be tightly closed. The meat should appear “filled out” and not wrinkled. If the oyster smells bad, don’t eat it!
The presence of an oyster shucker or two is a dead giveaway in an oyster bar. In other words, the presence of this person means that you’ll be served fresh oysters. Typically, raw bars and oyster bars buy fresh oysters by the bushels, in burlap bags. They’re often hosed down while still in the shell, in order to remove any mud. They’re then chilled, awaiting orders. Once you place your oyster order, it’s given to the kitchen and the oyster shucker goes to work. The shells are opened, and the tissue that holds the meat to the shell is cut, releasing the meat. The oyster meat is then placed back on the shells, as oysters on the half-shell. At that point, if you ordered raw oysters, they’re ready to be eaten, often on a cracker with some hot sauce, grated horseradish, and/or cocktail sauce. If you ordered baked oysters, the opened critters are topped with melted butter, spinach, bacon, crabmeat, cheese, or other ingredients. Ready to check out some seafood restaurants, oyster bars, and raw bars now?