- Ron Bechtol
- Southerleigh at the Pearl offers outdoor seating and a chance to pair oysters with beer.
Whoever the oyster-eating OG might have been, their progeny have grown up to be diehard connoisseurs, a phenomenon that can be witnessed even in inland outposts such as San Antonio where we’re experiencing a veritable tidal surge in oyster bars. The newest, helmed by a woman at that, opened in early December.
There’s been excellent, country-wide seafood availability ever since the advent of modern air freight — think of those classic towers with their tiered displays of crab claws, shrimp and oysters.
The Alamo City has reaped the benefit of that availability for a while, as evidenced by now-shuttered oyster purveyors including Jason Dady’s Shuck Shack (scheduled to reopen in late 2020), Andrew Weissman’s Sandbar and Luke, where 50-cent happy hour Gulf oysters were a compelling draw. Still soldiering on is the eponymous Ostra at the Mokara Hotel & Spa on the River Walk, where a dozen chilled oysters on the half shell will set you back $28 — a relative bargain by today’s standards.
All that said, the current bivalve surge might well have been set in motion by a Texas-inspired fried rendition. Humor me here, but I’m thinking that it’s not a total accident that Mark Bliss’ chicken-fried oysters made an early and noteworthy appearance when he was in charge of the kitchen at Silo on Austin Highway. The dish is still on the menu there and at Bliss, the restaurant he later founded in Southtown.
To boot, one of the city’s best raw sources is at now at the offshoot Silo Terrace Oyster Bar on Interstate 10. True trigger or not, on an early December Saturday the restaurant, with its breezy, elevated outdoor terrace, was offering a choice of seven — from Massachusetts, Maine and Prince Edward Island. All were $3.75 each with a half-dozen priced at $21, a dozen chef’s choice at $39 and a dozen of your choice at $42.
Building on this success, the Silo management, which also operates Silo Prime and Nonna in the Fairmount Hotel, recently launched an oyster bar on the Fairmount roof — a venue worth seeking out if only for its sophisticated urban feel. The outdoor setting also makes it a perfect pandemic hangout, and as a result I’ve been there twice in the past couple of months. The menu there describes oysters as though they were bottles of wine. Sweetheart Creek oysters from MA, for example, are “sweet and buttery … with a smooth, silky texture, vegetal notes and a crisp, metallic finish.”
In typical fashion, the bivalves are brought to you nestled into an icy tray with a few condiments and a convenient tag listing names. With the foregoing descriptions in mind, try only to add a squeeze of lemon or a drizzle of mignonette, a classic oyster accompaniment of red wine vinegar, shallot and cracked black pepper. After all, who would profane a glass of Sancerre with cocktail sauce? Prices range from $3.75 each to $41 a dozen. An excellent wine match, the 2018 William Fevre Champs Royaux Chablis, will set you back $64 — worth it for the armchair escapism.
- Courtesy of Little Em’s Oyster Bar
On my visit, there was an additional, off-menu selection, allowing me to sample five in total — including a surprisingly good Gulf oyster that needed only a slight hit of lemon and a whisper of horseradish to wake it up. Prices at Southerleigh range from $2.50 for the Gulf variety to $3.75 for the tiny, briny Petite Salt. And since you’re at a brewery, why not pair the shellfish with a crisp, dry beer? In the past, Southerleigh has offered Oso Bay Oyster Stout, a beer brewed with actual shells, but the suds selections may change as often as oysters, so look instead for the likes of the Southerlight, a “clean and dry” lager.
Paris, in the area west of the Bastille, was where I was first exposed to shameless, streetside displays of fresh oysters. Stand after stand offered ice-cradled Fines, Fines de Clair and Belons straight from the Bays of Arcachon, Cancale and Marenne-Oléron, France’s three, renowned oyster sources.
Many years later, at the end of a whirlwind tour of Europe, San Antonian Emily Carpenter and her contractor husband Houston also fell in love with oysters in Paris. However, upon returning home — and a subsequent oyster bar road trip that included Sydney, Australia among other ports of call — they turned that love into more than a memory. On December 4, their “mom-and-pop” ode to the oyster, Little Em’s Oyster Bar, officially opened in King William. It’s pretty in pink, blue and white, and it offers both indoor seating and an airy patio facing South Alamo Street.
West Coast oysters are a rarity in San Antonio, and as a sign of their dedication, the Carpenters are directly flying in Blue Pools, a “tumbled” Pacific variety from a grower on Washington State’s Hood Canal. Rounding out what is currently a list of five are four more from New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Massachusetts, all sourced through intermediaries and all priced at $3.75. The menu also includes a “dressed oyster,” a creation of chef Benjamin Crumley, that is — for now — an oyster-topped shot of his award-winning michelada.
It’s not all oysters at Little Em’s, though. There’s also a burger. But the only other non-seafood item, a beef fillet, comes topped with a lump crab demi. From there on, it’s all fruits de mer as the French would say — starting at shrimp and ceviches, a crudo, crab claws, a lobster roll — all of which can be topped off with a caviar service at $65-$85. Unlike oysters, which can be a little less meaty, though still safe, in summer due to their reproductive cycle, caviar is always in season.
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