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Where Y’Eat: For Gulf Oyster Loyalists, The Thrill Of The New Without Cheating

A specially cultivated oyster from the waters around Grand Isle.
Ian McNulty
A specially cultivated oyster from the waters around Grand Isle.

If we're at an oyster bar in Louisiana, we are usually not after something new, unless maybe it’s some different mojo in the cocktail sauce. But the oyster? We already know exactly what to expect. It will be a Gulf oyster – big, gregarious, generous, delicious, a bargain too and a taste we know by heart.

But lately, there has been a new kind of oyster showing up around New Orleans. It’s a homegrown oyster from local waters, but one bred to be different from the old-reliables.

These are farm-raised oysters, sometimes pitched as premium oysters and often listed by their geographic names. They are evocative -- Caminada Bay, Champagne Bay and Beauregard Island oysters, all from around Grand Isle, or Isle Dauphine and even Murder Point and Massacre Island oysters coming in from Alabama.

They look different, with thinner, lighter colored shells. Most importantly, they taste different, with a full richness, subtly floral, a little creamy, robustly briny.

They’re grown differently, cultivated in floating cages, tumbling around in the current and thriving in saltier conditions. The goal is to make a Gulf oyster that isn’t just a by-the-sack commodity, one the same as the next.  These are specially crafted and place-based, and you can sample them like different wines from the same type of grape. Of course, as you may have guessed, they're also more expensive.

That’s one reason why I was at first surprised by how quickly these pricier specialty oysters have found a place in New Orleans. I expected a certain don’t mess with my oysters attitude. But after a few years of tasting them around town, it turns out they aren’t replacing anything, just adding to what’s on the table.  We love local, we love flavor and variety too. These bring both.

There’s a saying -- from the French, naturally -- that eating an oyster is like kissing the sea on the lips. For seafood lovers faithful to the Gulf, these oysters give the thrill of a first kiss without any guilt of cheating.

Ian covers food culture and dining in New Orleans through his weekly commentary series Where Y’Eat.

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