When it comes to eating raw oysters, you fall into one of two camps: You love slurping down each slimy mollusk whole, or you simply can't stomach the thought. If you're the latter, maybe it's the texture that turns you off. Or maybe you just had a bad experience — it doesn't take more than a single bad one to leave a foul taste in your memory and set you against the idea.
"Unfortunately, most people don't know what a good oyster tastes like," says Wild Sea Oyster Bar & Grill executive chef Toby Joseph. "They're used to just one kind, that sour stuff you get at most cheap seafood restaurants. And no wonder they don't like them."
Joseph is betting a supersweet Kumamoto might be able to change your mind, however.
If you have yet to fall in love with oysters, it could just be that you haven't found the right one, the type your taste buds are most compatible with. But, with more than 500 varieties worldwide there's – quite literally – plenty of oysters in the sea, enough to help even the most shellfish-averse find "the one," says Joseph.
You can start your search for your perfect match at Wild Sea, a 2-year-old restaurant located inside the historic Riverside Hotel off Las Olas Boulevard. At Wild Sea, each oyster is served $3 apiece; it can seem a tad pricey, but it allows Joseph the freedom to source rare picks while maintaining a consistent price point.
For bargain hunters, the real steal can be found every day during happy hour, when, from 5 to 7 p.m., select oysters are sold at half-price. On a busy night, the kitchen will shuck close to 400 shells, patrons clamoring over giant trays of ice sampling a rainbow of flavors so unique it seems almost a shame to mask them with the house-made cocktail sauce or spicy horseradish.
Designed to offer a taste of classic New England seafood next door to the hotel's longtime modern American-themed Indigo Restaurant, Joseph says his original goal was create a memorable (and sustainable) seafood experience in South Florida. Now, two years after its launch, Wild Sea has stayed true to Joseph's original vision, a cozy space decorated like an underwater grotto where aqua walls match the servers' ties, the napkins and plates set at each table, and even the leather-bound cocktail menu. The main dining area shares tables with a striking white marble bar, walls adorned with softly backlit paintings of various sea creatures — octopus, squid, lion fish, and a sea horse — casting a soft blue light on the tables nearby.
The raw bar, set off to the side in an adjacent space that connects Wild Sea to the hotel's entrance off Las Olas, has no seating. Rather, it's more of a statement piece where a chalkboard lists the day's fresh catches, a serious passion for Joseph, who is especially enamored with the oysters' many merroirs — similar to a fine wine's terroir.
Each type of oyster suits different occasions, and the waters from which they are harvested impart a unique flavor affected by temperature, mineral content, and salinity. Brine lovers appreciate the mollusks of East Coast, sourced from spots across the Northeast, where Glidden Points, Wiannos, and Wellfleets offer some of the saltiest merroirs around. Those with a sweet tooth tend to prefer the creamy-smooth flavor of the Pacific, oysters sourced from British Columbia's Nootka Sound or Washington's Puget Sound.
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On a recent weekend, options ranged from briny East Coast Blue Points to lemony sharp James Rivers and supersweet Pacific Kumamotos. A scalloped-rimmed Miyagi was the prettiest of the bunch, holding a plump pearlescent lump of creamy-buttery oyster meat. Like the many before them, each of these bivalves arrived earlier that day, some shipped from the icy cold West Coast waters from Washington and British Columbia, while several more East Coast varieties are plucked from places like Prince Edward Island south to Connecticut and the Chesapeake.
"Most restaurants will source fish based on price, but we don't do that. Sustainability, responsible fishing, and quality are important to me," says Joseph. "That, and educating people about oysters. If you leave here and haven't found one you've fallen in love with, I'd be surprised. We're like matchmakers, but for bivalves."
Wild Sea Oyster Bar & Grille is located at 620 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, inside the Riverside Hotel. Call 954-467-2555, or visit wildsealasolas.com.
Nicole Danna is a food writer covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on the BPB New Times Food & Drink Instagram.