I was having déjà vu while sitting at a relatively new restaurant in Raleigh, slurping oysters. A couple of months earlier, this was at St. Roch, Sunny Gerhart's debut restaurant. This time, I was at The Cortez (see the full review on page 14).
In Durham, meanwhile, someone is having a similar meal at St. James, a new seafood restaurant from Matt Kelly, the chef-owner behind Mateo, Lucky's, and Mothers & Sons. And this summer, Locals Seafood, a company that sources North Carolina seafood and sells it all over the Triangle, will debut its own oyster bar and fish market in the upcoming food hall, Transfer Co.
It all raises the question: Why now?
I asked Lin Peterson, who started the company in 2010 with his friend, Ryan Speckman. In addition to selling wholesale to chefs, they also sell at farmers markets—Chapel Hill, Western Wake, and State—and supply to stores like Weaver Street Market, Whole Foods, and the Durham Co-op.
Is this just a trend? Are oysters merely the "it" protein of the moment? Trendy, yes, he told me. But it's more than that. While many people recognize the fall-into-winter transition as "oyster season," this only pertains to wild oysters. Most recently they have declined in availability due to everything from coastal development to water quality issues. In turn, supply had to restrategize to meet demand. Enter oyster farmers.
"In North Carolina, farming oysters is a relatively new business. We're way behind Virginia. But now we're really ramping that up," Peterson said. "At Locals, we average about eight to ten varieties of cultivated North Carolina oysters each week. And those are available year-round."
That's great news for oyster bars and for all of us who enjoy eating at them.
Beyond oysters, Locals sources dozens of seafood species each year. If this doesn't sound like a lot, try naming twenty different fish. (And forget salmon—it's not even available around here.) Depending on the month, our coast offers everything from tuna to triggerfish, catfish to dogfish, mullet to sheepshead.
So why are we familiar with so few? And why does salmon from who-knows-where feel like a better bet than red porgy from the N.C. coast?
Seafood offers a unique challenge to chefs. Like the sea itself, the variety is almost endless, but many consumers have a narrow comfort zone.
When Gerhart started pursuing his own restaurant, he stumbled upon a space on the corner of Cabarrus and Person Streets in Raleigh that just felt right for "cheap beer, oysters, and po' boys." But when Joule's former space opened up, he opted to take this idea and elevate it there. Now, only seven months in, Gerhart is exploring the possibilities and potential of St. Roch's menu.
"Everyone wants tuna, salmon, flounder. But thinking about ocean sustainability, it makes more sense to introduce other things," he says. "And a lot of times, those fish are really delicious."
Especially when someone like Gerhart is cooking them. One week, St. Roch did a turtle Bolognese. ("We joke that they were mean turtles," he laughs.) Another week, it was frog legs, fried, served with XO sauce and roti, "from a guy down in Florida who goes out on his airboat on the weekends and gets frogs."
"We sold out in two days. Then we had someone come back, wanting those frog legs. And I could get frog legs all year long. But they're going to come frozen from China." Beyond sustainability, and beyond creativity, Gerhart likes sourcing locally because it means supporting local jobs.
I've heard more than one chef say that the farmers have the tough work; they grow the food, while all chefs have to do is not mess it up. But chefs who specialize in seafood have to do more than that. They have to get someone to order something called "White Grunt" in the first place, then get them to like it so much that they want more.
Oscar Diaz, executive chef at The Cortez, is navigating similar waters during his restaurant's first year, learning to discern between what people want and what people don't know they want, yet. All the restaurant's oysters, for instance, are local. But its salmon, which Diaz likened to "the queso of the sea," is from the Pacific Northwest.
Diaz had been thinking about a seafood place for years, he explains, inspired by visiting Mexico every summer when he was young. He appreciates Calabash-style seafood but wanted to showcase a lighter cevicheria approach.
"The product is local," he says, "but the technique is nostalgic to us."
What stalled him and his business partner, Charlie Ibarra, he said, was real estate. By the time The Cortez opened, articles like this were already starting to appear.
"From that aspect, we were like, damn, man, three years trying to open this, saying, 'No one's doing it!' Then all of the sudden—boom—everybody. But at the same time, I don't want to be the only one combating it. It's a group effort. Because then we're not the crazy people, trying to push crazy shit," he said. "Farm-to-table is one thing, but sea-to-table is another."