Few foods will split a crowd more quickly than raw oysters. For some, the concept of consuming a gooey, still-living paste is a nonstarter, cocktail sauce or no. For others, oysters are one of the cornerstones of good eating, the best way to taste the very essence of the ocean, a sublime crossover between primitive eats and the fruits of civilization.
Fortunately for local oyster lovers, Chef Russell Klein of Meritage is a big bivalve booster. “Why an oyster bar? Because this is my passion,” he says, speaking of the restaurant’s recently opened oyster and absinthe bar. A New York native, Klein spent his summers with his grandfather out on the east end of Long Island. Pointing to a photo hung in the restaurant’s dining room (below, left), Klein says: “That’s my grandfather with a pile of bluefish at his feet. ”
Presiding (with the assistance of Sous Chef Chris Olson) over Meritage’s new oyster program, Klein has brought his East Coast roots to St. Paul, overseeing the seafood-packed ice case that anchors the room. “I love everything I do in the kitchen as a French chef, but when I think, ‘What makes me excited? What’s my last meal…?’ Well, it’s in that case.”
Klein’s stance will ring a bell with anyone who has ever fallen under the spell of the raw oyster. They range from mild and almost fruit-inflected to funky and briny and fiercely strong in flavor, but they always have a taste of the ocean about them. That merroir (the marine equivalent of terroir, or taste of the land) is part of what makes oysters such an entertaining tasting experience — since the flavor varies wildly, a good oyster bar will offer a range of experiences for diners to enjoy. Meritage certainly does — it currently offers four out of five main oyster species.
HEAVY TABLE: What’s so exciting about oysters from a food perspective? Why do you love to eat them?
RUSSELL KLEIN: They bring the ocean to me. I love — they’re so simple, so pure. They’re one of the only foods you can eat that are basically alive until you eat it. I love the concept of merroir with oysters — it’s a world to explore.
When you get down to it, there are five main species of oysters. It’s all about where they grow. The oysters grown down in the Gulf [of Mexico] are the same oysters that are grown up and down the East Coast — each place imparts its own flavor characteristics to the oysters. It’s one of the quintessential American foods — all the way back to the Native Americans, Pilgrims… oysters are one of the great abundant natural foodstuffs in this country.
HT: And oysters fit in with Meritage, as a concept, too…
RK: Yes — this is a French brasserie, and oysters are a traditional part of a French brasserie. So it brings together all these elements from my personal history, to foods that I love, to the type of restaurant we are — all of these things kind of come together, so I’m very excited.
HT: There are other places around here for people to get oysters — what sets the Meritage oyster bar apart?
RK: The main thing is putting together direct relationships with oyster farmers. The biggest problem with most oyster farms is that they’re not really set up for direct shipping. But Island Creek [oyster farm], who we work with, can also act as a catch-all for some of his friends — kind of like DragSmith Farms does, locally.
We also work with The Fish Guys. They bill themselves as the largest seafood reseller in the Midwest. I work directly with the two owners of the company. For them, we’re kind of a boutique account — they make most of their money with Lunds and Kowalski’s, and McCormick and Schmick’s and all those places. We talk on a daily basis.
Sometimes we spend an hour a day talking. I went downstairs this morning and did a full count of every oyster we have in inventory so I know exactly what we have, and he did the same on his end, so we could figure out what he had that I needed… he’s bringing in a lot of things just for me.
HT: So, it takes a fair bit of work to keep the program going?
RK: You just have to be working every day to manage the program. If you’re getting them super fresh. I need to be spending more time on the West Coast developing relationships like I’ve been developing on the East Coast — the East Coast oysters we’ve been getting, in particular, are amazingly fresh and gorgeous.
I’ve made a commitment that we’re going to have the best oyster bar in the upper Midwest. If that means that we have a bigger inventory than we need and there’s some waste and we eat the cost, I’m willing to do that.
HT [eating a small oyster]: OK, so what am I tasting here…?
RK: It’s a Kumamoto, which everyone knows… it’s sort of a brand-name oyster. It’s its own species. It’s from Japan, and raised up and down the West Coast. These are from Humboldt Bay, California. It’s a pretty simple oyster in terms of flavor — you get nice hints of melon and cucumber. This one’s on the drier side. You’re going to get that kind of deeper cup on West Coast oysters — they’ll have milder, creamier, flavors.
HT: Really clean and mellow. Doesn’t really have the same saline kick and funk of some of the more aggressive East Coast oysters.
Tell me about some of the other things you’ve got going on in terms of the food at the oyster bar… you can order shrimp cocktail by the piece, is that right?
RK: Yeah. When preparing to open this place, every time I went out to eat around here, I ordered a shrimp cocktail, and it was one mediocre shrimp cocktail after another. Most of the shrimp out there is farm raised; ours is a wild, Pacific shrimp caught off the Baja peninsula. It’s a big, meaty, shrimp — it tastes like shrimp.
HT: It really does — it’s just a much more profound flavor, meaty rather than watery and bland. What’s the story with the stone crab claws that you’ve got?
RK: We sell them by the piece — it’s $7.50 per. You can come in and make your own little smorgasbord, with a shrimp, a stone crab claw, a few oysters, and control your spending. Stone crab claws are a great treat every year — seasonal, sustainable, they kind of hit all the right notes.
HT: Really sweet. Mmm. Now, getting back to the oysters, who’s this big guy?
RK: That’s the Belon or European flat — definitely an oyster for the oyster aficionado.
HT: Oh, this is… this is intense. It’s almost like sweetbreads or offal, and it’s really massive. Almost a fishy flavor to it. It’s good, but it’s also kicking my ass!
RK: It’s the oyster that’s really common in Ireland. There’s a really great tradition of Irish flats and Guinness. Belons have a weak connector muscle, so they can open during shipping, so there’s a higher degree of waste, so many people don’t want to carry them. But we do.
HT: There’s got to be something of an educational component to serving oysters around here… is the Oyster Bar going to have any kind of outreach on that front?
RK: Well, we do wine school right now, where we offer the wine training for our staff to the public. Now we’re going to do oyster school.
HT: That’s great — let us know the dates for that when it gets announced. And thanks for having us here.
RK: Our pleasure.
TIP: The shrimp cocktail, made with wild-caught Pacific shrimp, is the best in town, hands down.