by Amy Beth Wright on January 12, 2022 | Reprinted from StyleBlueprint

Explore the North Carolina Oyster Trail — a celebration of the region’s oyster farms, oyster bars, gourmet markets, and more — and take a closer look at 10 must-visit stops along the way!

Ideal for hobby culinary travelers and oyster lovers alike, North Carolina’s Oyster Trail is a unique network of oyster farms, oyster bars, gourmet markets, seafood and oyster festivals, conservation and education organizations like the North Carolina Aquarium, and — delectably — many restaurants featuring farmed North Carolina oysters on the menu.

North Carolina’s farmed oysters, celebrated on the oyster trail, are infused with freshness and salinity, and offer myriad environmental and economic benefits. Jane Harrison, a coastal economics specialist with the North Carolina Sea Grant, explains that oysters filter water, improve water quality, and provide a food supply for humans and other animals. And, because wild oyster reefs protect the coastline from erosion and are habitats for spawning fish and crustaceans, the increased popularity of farmed oysters allows wild oyster reefs to benefit from protection and restoration. Oyster farming also economically sustains coastal fishing communities that currently face a diminished supply of wild seafood to harvest.

Sounds like an absolute win-win to us! While the North Carolina Oyster Trail has a wide variety of stops along the way, we’re focusing on our favorite travel activity: eating. Below, 10 North Carolina chefs and restaurateurs share their unique oyster preparations, from fried to raw to nestled at the bottom of a shooter. Perspective about the trail’s importance from North Carolina chefs and sommeliers “filters” throughout!

North Carolina’s oyster trail pays homage to this tasty delicacy. Image: Amy Beth Wright
Working oyster farms like this one are found along the NC Oyster Trail. Image: Amy Beth Wright

Blue Water Grill and Raw Bar | Manteo, NC

Blue Water Grill seeks out “as many local farm-raised oysters as we can find,” says sous chef Tim Gard, who sources from Savage Inlet in Nags Head, Devil Shoals on Ocracoke Island, and Slash Creek Oyster Company, Hatteras Salts, and Sticky Bottom Oyster Co. on Hatteras Island. A colorful oyster shooter is a house signature, the oyster layered with lemon horseradish sauce, cucumber puree, vodka, and Bloody Mary mix. Tim describes the trail as a powerful resource. “If we can show our customers how important this is and what a treat it is, hopefully we can spread that enthusiasm to other areas and other industries, improving not only the quality of our product, but the local economy as well.”

The oyster shooter at Blue Water Grill is a sight to behold. Image: Blue Water Grill

Howard’s Pub & Raw Bar | Ocracoke Island, NC

Ann Warner has owned Howard’s Pub, a seasonal restaurant on Ocracoke Island, for 32 years. She describes Ocracoke Pamlico Sound oysters as “plump, juicy, salty, and delectable.” Howard’s Pub serves oysters raw and steamed on the half shell, and a popular Oysters Rockefeller features creamy spinach, bacon, and melted cheese. At the bar, an oyster shooter is prepared with chilled vodka or cold draft beer, hot sauces, and a little spice and comes in a souvenir glass. Ann notes that oysters contribute positively to “our economy, health, and wellbeing.”

Next time you’re in Ocracoke Island, NC, stop into Howard’s Pub for some fresh oysters on the half shell. Image: Howard’s Pub

JK’s Restaurant | Kill Devil Hills, NC

Spurgeon Stowe, owner and oyster farmer at Slash Creek Oyster Company on Cape Hatteras, often hand delivers oysters 60 miles north to JK’s, an Outer Banks mainstay known for unparalleled 30-day house-aged steaks. JK’s sommelier, Dennis Perry, recommends a white wine that has body, like a barrel-aged, buttery chardonnay, to complement the Baked Oysters Rockefeller, which features spinach walnut pesto and Parmesan cheese. For raw oysters, he suggests that any dry champagne is a wonderful complement. Wines from Chablis as well as Muscadet, which Dennis describes as “dry, high acid, lean, and austere,” cut through the salinity, achieving the same effect as a squeeze of lemon.

Spurgeon or his wife and business partner, Katherine McGlade, will take visitors (call ahead to book) onto the water for a peek into the submerged white boxes sheltering thousands of burgeoning oyster seeds, and the floating bags incubating growing oysters destined for the premium half-shell market.

Oysters at JK’s come from Slash Creek Oyster Company on Cape Hatteras they are fresh and incredibly tasty! Image: Dennis Perry
Bags of oysters from Slash Creek Oyster Company waiting to be enjoyed. Image: Amy Beth Wright

PinPoint | Wilmington, NC

On its raw oyster menu, PinPoint features Tarheel Tiderunners and Soundside Salts from Stump Sound on Topsail Island, and Dukes from N. SEA. Oyster Co., on the Topsail Sound. All are served with crackers, cocktail sauce, and an apple and ginger mignonette. An NC Oysters Steamed Buns appetizer features buttermilk fried oysters with local lettuces, beet and carrot slaw, and creamy sunchoke vinaigrette. And, pork belly and pepper jelly oysters are baked with lemon cornbread crumbs, white wine, and Parmesan.

The raw oyster menu at PinPoint is a must-try for oyster lovers! Image: PinPoint

Saltbox Seafood Joint | Durham, NC

Defined by his commitment to fresh, local seafood, Chef Ricky Moore sources oysters from Ryan Bethea’s Oysters Carolina, on Harker’s Island in the Outer Banks. Ryan is quoted within North Carolina’s Oyster Blueprint, the long-term statewide vision behind the Oyster Trail, as saying, “People just need to be educated that they’re safe,” noting oyster farming has no environmental detriments.

Chef Ricky’s shucked oysters are from Mattamuskeet Seafoods, discovered on one of Moore’s many journeys to the coast in search of briny, plump oysters in a nicely framed shell, with clear “oyster liquor.” He recommends Saltbox‘s Oysters Piccatta with Prosecco, and appreciates the trail’s focus on educating consumers about why it’s important to buy and eat local oysters, noting that awareness “kickstarts consumer confidence.”

Saltbox Seafood Joint is a humble establishment with a menu that is anything but. Image: Baxter Miller
The presentation is just as decadent as the main feature. Image: Baxter Miller

Seabird | Wilmington, NC

Seabird, helmed by James Beard Foundation-nominated chef Dean Neff, is a restaurant and oyster bar in a historic building near the Wilmington Riverwalk. Raw oysters include Dukes from N. Sea Oyster Co., a high-salinity oyster that Dean describes as “impossibly more perfect in January and February, as the gills become green,” and a medium-low salinity oyster from Seabirdie Holdfast Oyster Company cultivated in Stones Bay in Sneads Ferry, North Carolina. Permuda Petites from Three Little Spats Oyster Company (whose oystering roots date from the 1800s) are farmed in Stump Sound, between Topsail Island and Permuda Island.

Chef Dean describes these as having “super balanced buttery salinity,” with tasting notes of seagrass, sea bean, iron, and umami. In addition to lemon, hot sauce, champagne mignonette, and saltines, a house sambal cocktail sauce is made with locally grown aji dulce, cayenne, padron, biquinho, or Trinidad Perfume peppers, garlic, ginger, and lemongrass. A Muscadet like Oysterman, from France’s Loire Valley, is recommended. Oyster farming “not only brings a new and sustainable industry,” says Dean, “but also brings awareness to water quality issues and the importance of preserving our pristine coastline.”

Oysters in their natural state at Seabird come with a variety of accoutrements for a full flavor experience. Image: Andrew Sherman

Sea Level NC | Charlotte, NC

For Sea Level NC, restaurateur Paul Manley prizes rounded oysters with “a solid upper shell, no boring sponge or crumbly hinge, a deep cup, uniform size from good sorting habits, a good chipped lid for smooth slurping, freshness, and a great meat-to shell-ratio, indicating they’ve not been harvested too soon.” At happy hour, Sea Level Salts are available for $1 per oyster, sourced primarily from Morris Family Farms in Sea Level. Paul’s companion restaurant in Charlotte’s South End neighborhood, The Waterman Fish Bar, offers a similar special.

Sea Level NC in Charlotte features pristine oysters for the slurping. Image: Sea Level NC

Shuckin’ Shack Oyster Bar | Surf City, NC

Shuckin’ Shack owners Jason and Beverly Simas source local oysters broadly, from Three Little Spats Oyster Company, Ghost Fleet Oyster Company in Hampstead, Middle Sound Mariculture in Wilmington, and many others. They look for “steamers,” which have roughly a three-inch shell and plump meat, and a 2.5-inch oyster for the raw menu with clear and plentiful brine, a shell with a “nice deep cup,” and medium-high salinity.

Chargrilled oysters are placed on an open-flame grill with added melted garlic butter, chopped cooked bacon, jalapeno cheddar or Parmesan, and fresh scallions. Pair them with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that is “bright with vivid aroma and zesty acidity.” Shuckin’ Shack is on the James Beard Foundation’s Smart Catch Committed List, and partners with the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition. The Simas recycle all shells and appreciate the trail as a means of informing the public about how invaluable oyster farming is to local waters.

In addition to oysters, you can enjoy a tasty lobster dinner at Shuckin’ Shack. Image: Shuckin’ Shack

St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar | Raleigh, NC

Here, the world is the oyster, and chef and owner Sunny Gerhart’s New Orleans roots guide the menu. Raw oysters come with fried saltines, a house mignonette, horseradish, Tabasco, and house-pickled banana peppers. On the raw menu are two high-salinity oysters from the North River area in eastern North Carolina, plump “Beaufort Brinys” and petite Sea Cups. Also find Slash Creek Oysters, Carolina Dreams from Stump Sound, and Core Sounders, a medium-salinity oyster.

The Tchoupitoulas Street Special is a showstopper, with 18 “shucker’s choice” oysters, peel ‘n eat NC shrimp, and blue crab claws. St. Roch’s Roasted Oysters are served “BBQ’d, pimento’d, garlic butter’d, or crawfish’d.” For brunch, the Fried Oyster Hotcake comes with sunny eggs, crispy chili, creole cane syrup, whipped ricotta, and chives.

St. Roch’s roasted oysters are explosively flavorful! Image: Anna Routh Barzin

Wrightsville Beach Brewery | Wrightsville, NC

Owner, brewer, and “head oyster shucker” Jud Watkins grew up oystering with his father and grandfather, and as a result, Wrightsville Beach Brewery is committed to sustainability and environmental protection. In addition to po’boy sandwiches, pizza, and a Caprese salad, the brewery features Shell’em Seafood’s wild harvest singles in a special “Redneck Rockafella” dish with house-made pimento cheese, North Carolina collards, and bacon. Fried Oyster Bites are served over kimchi-spiced collards; both pair well with a medium-bodied beer like the brewery’s Airlie Amber Ale or Coastal Honey Lager.

Oysters over greens at Wrightsville Beach Brewery offer a decidedly Southern twist on this delicacy. Image: Wrightsville Beach Brewery

Happy trails!

by John Griffin on June 28, 2021 | Reprinted from The Outer Banks of North Carolina

Oysters are delicious. I like them raw, steamed, roasted, and fried. But delicious isn’t the only attribute that makes them amazing. Oysters are a keystone species which provides an ecosystem for many kinds of fish and plants by creating and maintaining reef habitat. In addition, each oyster filters 50-60 gallons of water every day, contributing to improved water quality. 

North Carolina’s shellfish industry generates $27 million annually to the state’s economy and employs 532 North Carolinians. Just over half of that value comes from farmed oysters. And unlike wild caught oysters, farmed are available throughout the entire year. And if you’re wondering, I eat them all – wild and farmed oysters are both yummy.

In 2020, those who know oysters to be amazing – folks like myself – worked together to launch the NC Oyster Trail. The Trail is administered by North Carolina Sea Grant and North Carolina Coastal Federation in partnership with the NC Shellfish Growers Association and copious oyster lovers and volunteers. It offers unique tourism experiences centered on our state’s tasty oysters. Along the Trail, you will find oyster farm tours; restaurants and markets that sell N.C. oysters; artists that make art with oyster shells; and aquariums, museums and educational centers where you can learn pretty much everything about my favorite North Carolina mollusk – you guessed it, the oyster.

In the Outer Banks we have five oyster farms featured on the Trail: Cape Hatteras Oyster CompanySlash Creek Oysters, and Sticky Bottom Oysters on Hatteras Island; and Savage Inlet Oysters just south of Nags Head; Ocracoke Mariculture on Ocracoke Island. Some farms offer tours on boats to see their operations while others sell to local restaurants and direct to oyster eaters.

Restaurants on the NC Oyster Trail in our area include Blue Water Grill & Raw Bar in Manteo; The Froggy Dog Restaurant & Pub in Avon; and Flying Melon Café, Howard’s Pub & Raw Bar, Plum Pointe Kitchen, and Ocracoke Oyster Company on Ocracoke Island. They offer oysters prepared creatively every day and serve both wild-caught and farmed oysters. Travelers between Hatteras and Ocracoke Village now have two choices to reach their destination, the express passenger ferry or car ferry. Ferry schedules and more information can be found here

Additional organizations on the NC Oyster Trail include the Dare County Arts Council, with supported artists that incorporate oysters and other ocean and marine themes in their art. Outer Banks Adventures will traverse along shallow waters on their airboat and tour active oyster beds and oyster reefs. North Carolina Coastal Federation hosts an oyster farm demonstration and living shorelines site in Wanchese. Here you can also learn more important tips to care for North Carolina’s coast and marine environment. At Hatteras Island Ocean Center you will find oyster exhibits, have the opportunity to experience the wetlands and coastal forest by launching a kayak, or even attend special coast related programs and events.

Visit the Trail’s website (NCOysterTrail.org) to discover more oyster adventures. You can plan a whole day around oysters or enjoy just a few hours – take an oyster tour, have a wonderful meal, or buy oysters to prepare at home. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find North Carolina oysters to be delicious – buttery, creamy, sweet, salty, zesty. They draw their unique flavors from our coastal environment, producing a taste that can’t be beat.

by Liz Biro on January 5, 2021 | Reprinted from Coastal Review

Oysters on the half shell are shown in this file photo. Photo: Ashita Gona

No matter how you travel the new North Carolina Oyster Trail, whether you visit every single restaurant along the route or take an oyster farm tour, you’ll come away with one thing for certain: inspiration to cook your own oysters at home.

They’re best simply prepared with a delectable sauce, and these five recipes cover all the best ways to serve oysters.

If you like raw oysters on the half shell, go for the sweet Vidalia vinegar sauce with pink peppercorns and a hint of sweet sparkling wine. Oysters roasted in the oven or over a live fire are insanely good with garlic butter hot sauce or creamy jalapeno remoulade. Also start thinking about your own signature cocktail sauce. Consider the classic cocktail sauce recipe below a base for unbridled creativity.

No matter which sauce you choose, abide by one important rule: Never pile on so much sauce that it covers up the oyster’s flavor.

Sweet Vidalia Vinegar Sauce

A few drops of vinegar on oysters is standard in many communities along the North Carolina coast. A little acid balances the oyster’s rich texture and creamy flavor. In France, mignonette sauce — chopped shallots, crushed peppercorns and vinegar – is the classic condiment for raw oysters. However vinegar is served on an oyster, apply sparingly or vinegar’s tang will overwhelm the oyster’s natural flavors.

Blend 2 tablespoons minced Vidalia onion, 1 teaspoon crushed pink peppercorns, a pinch of crushed black peppercorns, ¼ cup white wine vinegar and ¼ cup sparkling pink sweet wine such as Moscato in a small bowl. Gently stir until combined. Refrigerate until ice cold. Spoon on to raw oysters or offer as a steamed oyster condiment.

Jalapeno Remoulade

When you’re piling fried oysters on a sandwich or giving oysters a smoky brininess by baking them in their shells in the oven, a creamy sauce with a bite is a decadent way to complement the shellfish’s flavor.

Whisk together ½ cup mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons chopped pickled jalapenos, 1 tablespoon hot or mild chow chow, 1 teaspoon chopped capers, 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon lemon juice and 1 teaspoon paprika. Fold in 2 teaspoons chopped fresh parsley and 2 teaspoons chopped chives.

Garlic Butter Hot Sauce

No oyster roast is complete without cocktail sauce and little ramekins of hot, melted butter. As oyster roasts progress, those condiments get mixed together little by little as folks double dip in butter and then cocktail sauce or vice versa, creating one utterly delicious amalgamation. That mixing inspired this recipe. Dip steamed oysters into this sauce or drizzle it over fried oysters.

Peel and then finely chop four large cloves of garlic. Place garlic and 1 stick of unsalted butter in a small saucepan set over medium-low heat. Slowly cook the garlic in the butter for 5 minutes. Do not let garlic or butter brown. Continuously stir butter as you add ½ teaspoon paprika, ½ teaspoon chili powder, ½ teaspoon Cajun seasoning, 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce, 1 teaspoon horseradish, 1 scant tablespoon tomato paste and 2 tablespoons hot sauce to the pan. Makes ½ cup.

Oysters with mignonette and cocktail sauces. Photo: Edsel Little/Creative Commons

Classic Cocktail Sauce

Asking oyster roast lovers how they make their cocktail sauce is like asking Grandma for a recipe.

They’ll probably tell you they never measure anything and add a dab of this and a little of that depending on how the sauce tastes as they’re mixing it. Everyone seems to agree that ketchup, horseradish, hot sauce and Worcestershire are key ingredients. From there, it’s up to the cook.

Use this recipe as a starter to create your own blend. You might add grated garlic, lime juice, Old Bay seasoning blend, soy sauce, chipotle, wasabi instead of horseradish or other ingredients to make this sauce your own.

Whatever you choose, the end result should be a balance of sweet, salty and tangy with noticeable but not extreme heat. In North Carolina, classic cocktail sauce is a dip for steamed, fried and baked oysters as well as oysters roasted over a fire. It’s also a condiment for fried oysters served in a hamburger bun, a sandwich known as an oyster burger.

In a small bowl, blend together ½ cup ketchup, 1-3 tablespoons grated horseradish, 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce, 1-2 teaspoons hot sauce, 1 teaspoon lemon juice or a dash of vinegar. Cover and refrigerate sauce until ready to use.

Trust Me Sauce

This simplest of all recipes comes from my late Italian uncle who showed up at our house one night to tell us we had been eating steamed clams all wrong.

He suggested that we lay them out on the half shell, sprinkle each clam with a little oregano and garlic powder and then drizzle on top-quality extra-virgin olive oil.

“Trust me,” he said. “I know what I’m talking about.”

Turns out he was right, and his suggestion was equally delicious on oysters baked in their shells in the oven. Sometime, we sprinkled on a little flaked red pepper, too.

© 2023 NC Oyster Trail.