From Issue Two of the Gear Patrol Magazine. Subscribe today for 15% off the GP Store.
The Ordinary, an airy restaurant in an old bank building in downtown Charleston, has lots of space for seafood experimentation. Its head chef and owner, Mike Lata, works with independent local fishermen to serve what used to be called “trash fish” — rudderfish, amberjack and the like, previously not economically viable — at gourmet prices. The “Fat Ladies,” a permanent fixture on the raw oyster menu, are bred and grown exclusively for Lata 45 minutes away in Beaufort, South Carolina.
But the most popular dish on the menu started out as a camp snack.
“I was on a camping trip, and after a long day of hiking, my friend pulled out a can of smoked oysters. I said, ‘I’d rather not eat, thank you,’” Lata says. He eventually gave in to trying one of the smoky lumps atop a saltine cracker. “I was like “god damn, this is actually really good.’ It doesn’t look good. Doesn’t smell good. But it tastes good.”
Later, at The Ordinary, Lata decided he wanted to serve the dish — but not from a can. “These are premium half-shell oysters,” he say in the comfortable kitchen of The Ordinary, his tall build marine-like in spite of his white chef’s jacket, his voice clipped, eyes sharp. “Let’s take this idea of the smoked oyster — it’s a low-end experience, a canned oyster, kinda tailgate-y — why don’t we try to take a more haute level while keeping that context in mind?”
“Haute” in this case means making all the pieces of the simple dish — oyster, cracker, crème fraîche and hot sauce — in-house; Lata shared his recipe so you can do the same. The slightly smoky, very plump oyster flesh, crunch of the buttery cracker, and heat of the hot sauce, cut by the crème fraîche, is a balanced pastiche of Charleston’s coastal foodie glory. Or, as Lata puts it: “That’s a good drinkin’ snack right there.”
Smoked Oysters with Crème Fraîche and Saltines
Ingredients (Serves 4):
12 saltine crackers
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
1/4 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
2 teaspoons toasted whole coriander seeds
1/2 cup crème fraîche
1/4 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 1/2 tablespoons hickory chips
1 dozen oysters on the half shell
1 tablespoon finely chopped heart of celery, leaves included
2 teaspoons minced shallots
1 teaspoon finely chopped chives
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Hot sauce (Lata recommends Crystal hot sauce)
1. Preheat the oven to 375°F.
2. Place the saltine crackers on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
3. Brush both sides with melted butter and bake until golden brown, about 5 minutes.
4. Remove from the oven and immediately sprinkle with Old Bay seasoning. Let cool.
1. Grind the coriander seeds and combine them with the crème fraîche and lemon zest.
2. Whisk gently to incorporate. Refrigerate.
1. Place the hickory chips in a small pile in the center of the base of a stovetop smoker.
2. Place a perforated pan on top of the wood chips. Place a wire rack on top of the perforated pan. Place the oysters, still in their shells, on the wire rack.
3. Place the smoker, with the lid slightly open, on a burner set to medium heat.
4. When the first sign of smoke rises, close the lid and smoke the oysters for 10 minutes.
5. Remove the oysters and shuck into a bowl, taking care to include as much of the “liquor”or juice as possible.
6. Add the celery, shallots, chives, lemon juice and olive oil and mix gently.
7. Serve with on top of the saltines, with crème fraîche and hot sauce.