If you’re not practiced in the art of eating crawfish, the struggle can be real, even embarrassing. In seconds, that orange body can break apart in your hands as you try to twist the tail away from the body—or, even worse, flesh might fly through the air, splattering onto the floor.
And, as happened to me, almost on the shoes of a man at a nearby table. You should’ve stuck to the basics, I could almost hear him say, as we both sat in the dining room of Sea Bar in Great Neck Plaza. I had a heaping platter of iced shellfish in front of me, while he was making quick, neat work of a plate of fried calamari.
The basics are boring, though. Surrounded by shellfish, shouldn’t we all be eating more of it? And when you manage to crack the code—or the crab claw, or the crawfish—you are rewarded with subtly sweet flesh, so tender it almost dissolves onto your tongue.
My hunt for superlative shellfish plateaus and towers had started in midsummer, during a daily Zoom meeting. “What about a story on raw bars? What makes a really good one?” someone asked, and I was off and running. I’d been asked related questions before—Is there a proper order in which you should eat things? (No) Can you order just one or two oysters at a time before plunging into a dozen? (In some places, sure, but why not go for broke?)—that as our de facto oyster ombudswoman, I was up for demystifying raw shellfish. In truth, it shouldn’t be mysterious at all, since we live on a 118-mile-long island jutting into shellfish-dense water, but a long list of unknown oyster names on a chalkboard or a multitiered seafood tower can be as intimidating as it is impressive.
In the weeks to come, I’d learn that a considered spread of ultrafresh seafood, one that embodies and communicates the place where it comes from, can be surprisingly difficult to find on Long Island, outside of a few clam shacks and oyster bars.
A confession: I avoided raw seafood until my late 20s, but I’ve made up for lost time. My early aversion to seafood and shellfish—common in Generation X and even younger, I think—was a simple fear of the unknown, as well as ’tween years spent as a latchkey kid partly raised on TV dinners, Arby’s and pasta. Those textures and flavors were rote and predictable, and that predictability took years of adulthood to shake off.
Back when my parents were teenagers, however, shellfish was a staple: crawfish and Gulf shrimp for my mother, raised in Louisiana, and clams and oysters for my dad and his parents here on Long Island, usually accompanied by cocktail sauce and (for the adults) lots of beer.
It is my father I lassoed to kick off my search for worthy raw bars, dragging him to a Gold Coast steakhouse, because he’s game for anything in a shell, and dads and steakhouses just seem to go together. Menus in hand, I reminded him, “We need to start with the raw bar.” He nodded solemnly, taking food deputization seriously and ready to pass swift judgment.
“What kind of oysters do you have tonight?” I asked the server, bracing myself. In nine out of 10 places on Long Island, fish markets included, the answer will be the same Blue Points. Asking where those Blue Points come from usually yields no further intel. (Genuine Blue Points are from one place only, in a particular spot in the Great South Bay, yet it’s become a catch-all marketing term for many oysters farmed there as well as in Long Island Sound or Connecticut.)
As so it was inside this tony steakhouse where the seafood plateau is $35 a person.
When it landed on our table, there was precisely one “Blue Point” oyster each, from parts unknown, as well as one clam each, one lobster claw each, lump crabmeat and a few sullen, flavorless shrimp. “Wow,” my father said, and he didn’t need to say more. We finished our plateau quickly, and in silence.
A raw bar is a relatively recent term for a restaurant or bar within a restaurant at which raw shellfish is shucked to order. (The term is slightly misleading, as there can be a number of cooked seafood options—shrimp, crab, lobster—as well.) The custom was common in European and East Coast restaurants from the early 1800s on, when oysters were plentiful and consumed by all classes of people as daily sustenance. A plateau de fruits de mer (seafood platter or tower), brimming with the sea’s bounty, is a traditional French extravagance that’s been on cosmopolitan menus in the United States for years.
Spicy sauces have long accompanied seafood the world over, but what Americans know as cocktail sauce (typically a punchy blend of ketchup, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, horseradish and perhaps hot sauce) came into play in the early 20th century. In its nest expression, cocktail sauce can boost oysters and clams, lobster tails and king crab claws, and, especially, shrimp cocktail, from good to great. Another classic sauce served at raw bars is mignonette, a blend of minced shallot, white wine and vinegar created in the 1930s by chef Théophile Kieffer at The Sherry-Netherland hotel in Manhattan.
I had looked at dozens of menus online by the time I ended up, fortuitously, inside Sea Bar (one of our Top 100 restaurants) in Great Neck Plaza, a bright, easygoing place of subway tile and nautical blues. The open kitchen is given over to fish in all of its glorious forms, from seared red mullet and grilled sea bream to tuna tartare and an old- school seafood platter ($45) so stunning I gazed at it for a while before diving in. There were oysters (Blue Points, yes, but from the Great South Bay), mussels, rosy littleneck clams, a few Alaskan king crab claws and giant shrimp, as well as crawfish of a pulsating orange hue. I hadn’t eaten one in a long time, hence the mess of the first few shattering in all the wrong ways. My late mother would have been horrified, but I pressed on.
Since the pandemic began, being glued to the news has become a ritual, even an obsession, but one of the gifts of an immersive seafood platter is a brief respite from the world at large. You can’t read the newspaper or send a text with hands covered in bits of shell and brine. To extricate oysters from their shells and crack open claws, to lose yourself fully in the physical task at hand, is the culinary equivalent of chopping wood or hauling water.
In the aftermath of Sea Bar, there were a few disappointments, from the Queens line to the South Fork. There were raw bars with a monotonous rota of shrimp cocktail and provenance-known oysters, or clams served on ice that was partially melted, so that the water crept into their shells. I then remembered Virgola Oyster & Italian Wine Bar, an elegant spot tucked into the ground floor of New Village in Patchogue, where there are a few standout seafood towers—including one that’s dotted with American black caviar and salmon roe, plus oysters from both East Coast and West.
One afternoon, they were serving up Fire Island Blues (as close to the original Blue Points as you can get), salmon crudo slicked with sesame oil and raw scallops drizzled with orange juice and scattered with shred- ded basil. I chased it all with a crisp, almost salty gavi, a white wine from the Piedmont region of Italy. The brine of the fish was lifted by the wine, the wine, in turn, was lifted by the crudo and the circle was complete.
That’s another thing about raw bars, one that’s not on the menu: drinks. Lager, classically, or a crisp vodka martini, or another salty white wine such as Muscadet (from France, and perfect with oysters) or a citrusy Italian white or even a steel-aged chardonnay from the North Fork. Like puzzle pieces, the shellfish and the wine lock into each other’s gaps and make a recognizable, artful whole.
As my deadline neared, so did the remnants of Hurricane Ida—the latest major news story that held us all rapt—but I still needed another superb raw bar for my story. In the hours just before the storm’s arrival, I drove to Port Jefferson, passing now-closed places I once loved, a promising new ramen place, and a pub where I drank beer and ate burgers in my 20s, and that remains, improbably, very much itself.
With the clouds bearing down and fall in the air, I arrived at P.J. Harbour Club wanting nothing more than chef Joseph Guerra’s clams steamed in white wine. But I stayed focused and was rewarded by a raw bar with presence and style: earthy, hulking wild North Shore oysters, pale pink clams so fresh and bursting, it almost seemed criminal to steam them.
There was sweet lobster meat already extracted from the shell and twirled into ribbons. There were sauces for every era: cocktail sauce, tartar sauce (so named for its association with steak tartare and referenced in the 1921 edition of Esco er’s “Le Guide Culinaire”), mignonette and a creamy limoncello sauce that delivered a bold riposte to the glowering gray sky outside.
Later that night, the intensity of the rain surprised us all, and parts of Port Jefferson flooded. For weeks, I had mixed feelings about that platter—I hoped everyone at the restaurant had gotten home safely, even as I felt the lingering glow that very fresh shellfish, lovingly prepared, can bestow: The clean tingle of salt and other minerals, the amiable sweetness and spritz of shrimp. How each oyster is a tiny universe of flavor, from grass and cucumber to copper, cream and even pine. How lobster can make you feel pampered, for a minute at least, and how each bite can mark the end of one season and the watermark of another.
Raw bar essentials
Each restaurant has its own interpretation of what comprises a raw bar or seafood tower, but basically, it’s chilled seafood that is either raw or prepared very simply, to allow the various individual flavors to shine. Ask where the sea- food comes from, if you’re curious—or don’t, if you’re not. Here are the major players.
OYSTERS: Oysters are typically the stars of a raw bar. We have dozens of oyster farms on Long Island, but what you will most commonly find are Blue Points from Connecticut or, ideally, the Great South Bay. You may also see oysters from up north and way west—Raspberry Points from Prince Edward Island or Kumamotos from the West Coast, for instance. To eat a raw oyster, run your shellfish fork (or smallest one provided) around the inside of the bottom shell to sever the adductor muscle before tipping the oyster and juices into your mouth. (Or spear the oyster with your fork and transfer it to your mouth.) How you savor the oyster meat—by slurping it whole or chewing to release every bit of flavor and texture—is up to you.
CLAMS: Long Islanders have wild clams in abundance, and what’s usually served on the half shell are littlenecks, the smallest (i.e., youngest) Atlantic hard-shell clams.
SHRIMP COCKTAIL: Boiled in seasoned water, then chilled, shrimp should be crisp and snappy.
LOBSTER OR CRAB CLAWS: These are also boiled, then chilled, and they come with a tool for cracking them open and extracting the meat. Do not be afraid of this messy business. An Alaskan king crab claw is often the standard, as is a lobster claw or tail.
LOBSTER MEAT OR LUMP CRAB: The sweet meat of king crab or lobster is sometimes piled into a cocktail dish and lightly seasoned, if seasoned at all.
CAVIAR: What you encounter these days is usually American black caviar from domestic fish such as bowfin or hackleback. You may also see salmon roe. In general, think buttery, concentrated sea salt tinged with anything from spice to nuttiness—each caviar is different.
CRAWFISH: These small, freshwater crustaceans are found throughout the world (including Long Island), but most are harvested from Louisiana. To eat, pinch o the tail, squeeze out the meat and enjoy. Afficionados also suck the flavorful juices out of the head.
CRUDO AND CEVICHE: These days, “crudo” is the catch-all term for raw fish dressed with oils, vinegars, and/or fruit juices, herbs and seasonings. Ceviche is often cubed fish that is marinated in citrus juices.
P.J. HARBOUR CLUB (154 W. Broadway, Port Jefferson): This elegant, white-tablecloth restaurant overlooks Port Jefferson Harbor. All of the raw bar items—clams, wild oysters, lobster meat pulled from its shell and beautifully presented—are sold by the piece. More info: 631-309-5800, pjharbourclub.com
SEA BAR (7 Great Neck Rd., Great Neck Plaza) At $45, the seafood plateau is one of the Island’s best bargains, loaded as it is with a dozen oysters, a half-dozen clams, steamed mussels, jumbo shrimp and a splay of crawfish. More info: 516-441-5708, seabar.life
VIRGOLA OYSTER & WINE BAR (5 Village Green Way, Patchogue): There are three seafood towers here, of increasing size, and the largest ($100) comes with two types of fish roe and salmon crudo. Almost everything can be ordered à la carte, and there are usually four or more types of oysters to choose from. More info: 631-714-5000, virgolausa.com