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Getting Cracking 

Oysters return to New Orleans, but who will shuck them?

Oysters can't evacuate, so a great many were decimated when Hurricane Katrina plowed through their beds. Oyster shuckers did leave, however, and most have yet to return.

Between those two dynamics lies a city hungry for the abundance of local oysters it expects this time of year -- and restaurants and bars remain largely unable to satisfy.

In late August, health officials cleared about half of the state's oyster beds for resumed harvesting. But the infrastructure needed to get them from the water to the platter remains in disarray, with oyster boats sunk, dock facilities destroyed and a sudden scarcity of skilled shuckers in New Orleans.

So when fresh oysters do show up at a restaurant, they're treated like bootleg liquor under Prohibition -- a coveted treasure bestowed upon surprised and delighted guests.

"It is Louisiana gold right now," says Jared Tees, the chef at Bourbon House Seafood and Oyster Bar. When a few sacks of oysters turned up at the French Quarter restaurant one day in late October, Tees cracked them open and served them as lagniappe for familiar faces in the dining room.

"I wish I could say we have them everyday," says Dickie Brennan, the owner of Bourbon House as well as the Palace CafŽ and Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse, which both remain closed. "They are available, we are going to get them, but we're just not there yet.

"We're really happy to see [oysters] at all right now, though. I consider it one more milestone for our city's recovery," Brennan says.

Raw oysters also recently turned up as a surprise treat for patrons at the Acme Oyster House location in Metairie.

"We announced that we'd be giving them away to customers having lunch there, and within about a second people were three-deep at the oyster bar," says Lucien Gunter, Acme's director of operations.

Oysters have been available fried or raw at Acme's Covington location for some time, but its storm-damaged French Quarter restaurant remains closed until January. Gunter says Acme is fortunate to have enough employees from its three Louisiana locations back in the area to staff the two restaurants now open.

That's not the case elsewhere, however. All types of restaurant workers are in high demand now, but owners and managers say the absence of experienced shuckers is the biggest obstacle to serving raw oysters with any consistency.

"I can get oysters today. I just don't have anyone to shuck them," says Larry Berestitzky, owner of Cooter Brown's Oyster Bar & Tavern in the Riverbend area.

In a pinch, managers can help wash dishes and family members can wait tables, but it takes an experienced shucker to open oysters quickly and without damaging the meat, says Sal Sunseri, an owner of P&J Oyster Company. "It truly is an art," he says.

Only a handful of shuckers have returned to P&J's French Quarter warehouse, which supplies many local restaurants with whole and pre-shucked oysters. Many of the shuckers at local oyster bars started in the business by working at P&J, cracking open countless oysters piled up on big concrete work stations inside the marine-scented warehouse. They start by notching their knives into the oyster's hinge, cracking the seal and sliding the knife deep along its lip to separate the meat from the shell. Al Suneri, another P&J owner, says a good shucker can open up four to six oysters a minute. But at New Orleans oyster bars and restaurants, the shucker's role has traditionally gone beyond simply prepping the raw ingredients.

"These guys are also frontline salesmen and that's unique to New Orleans," says Sunseri. "When you go to other cities, the oyster shuckers are removed somewhere doing their work. Here, the shucker is right there with the customer, talking about the oysters, where they came from, telling them about what's going on in the city."

At press time, Bozo's oyster bar in Metairie remains closed, while the Harbor Restaurant & Oyster Bar in Kenner is open but not yet serving oysters because of the lack of shuckers. Fisherman's Cove Seafood is also open in Kenner but only serving oysters that arrive pre-shucked from its supplier.

In the French Quarter, the normally raucous bar at Felix's Restaurant and Oyster Bar is in deep darkness as the restaurant remains shuttered. The Desire Oyster Bar at the Royal Sonesta Hotel expected to have raw oysters available last week, though at press time they had not surfaced.

Still, there are signs of progress for local oyster lovers. For instance, Casamento's Restaurant, Uptown's gleaming tile shrine to the bivalve, plans to reopen Nov. 15. Ralph Brennan has fried oysters back on the menu now at his Red Fish Grill on Bourbon Street. "As soon as we can get them, we'll be serving them raw," says Brennan.

Meanwhile, the word from Uglesich's Restaurant, which officially closed in May, remains as cryptic as ever. Messages posted on its Central City building and on its Web site advise the curious that "as for the reopening of Uglesich's Restaurant, as Mr. and Mrs. U still say, 'it ain't over till it is over,' at this point, it is not over."

Fried and char-broiled oysters were expected to be back this week at Drago's Restaurant in Fat City, but Klara Cvitanovich, one of the family owners, says they will wait until the end of November to begin serving them raw.

"We made the decision that we aren't going to serve them (raw) for one month," says Cvitanovich. "We want to be absolutely sure they are safe. If anybody got sick right now it would be devastating for the industry."

But others are convinced the oysters coming from approved areas are already as safe as before the storm.

"The facts are the facts," says Sunseri at P&J. "The state health department, right along with the FDA, have been testing and certifying them as safe. The water is fine and the product is great -- salty, creamy, nice, perfect."

click to enlarge "It truly is an art," says P&J Oyster Company owner Al - Sunseri, shown here displaying the popular bottom-feeder. - "These shuckers are also frontline salesmen, and that's - unique to New Orleans." - IAN MCNULTY
  • Ian McNulty
  • "It truly is an art," says P&J Oyster Company owner Al Sunseri, shown here displaying the popular bottom-feeder. "These shuckers are also frontline salesmen, and that's unique to New Orleans."
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