Big Skies and Bluefish
Why There’s Nothing Quite Like a Walrus & Carpenter Oyster Farm Dinner
Bluefish. It might be the most polarizing word in seafood. Fishermen love going after them, yet so many people claim a dislike to eating them. Or so they say. On the end of a line, they’re feisty and beautiful. But they’re a tough sell at the dinner table. If your supper blue wasn’t swimming this morning, it’s not fresh enough. If it’s overcooked, it’ll be dry and the rich dark meat will have turned oily and rank-tasting. Plentiful and inexpensive, it turned up on many meatless-Friday default menus, cooked by people who thought eating fish was supposed to be a penance.
So it’s a bold move indeed when chef/owner James Mark of north and north bakery in Providence chooses bluefish as the main event for the Walrus & Carpenter Oyster Farm Dinner. His “Grilled Almost-Boneless Bluefish” is a stunning refutation of every “bad blue” myth in the extensive canon. It’s only one revelation in the evening’s tableau.
Each Walrus & Carpenter Oyster Farm Dinner begins late in the afternoon as guests arrive by school bus to the Walrus & Carpenter dock to board the workboats that ferry them across Ninigret Pond to the oyster farm.
Glorious midsummer light flares up from the glassy water as diners-to-be, already a little drunk on the setting alone, slosh along in knee-deep shallows toward the oyster bar, ready-set for slurping. Overhead, the gigantic bowl of sky is inverted in the pond, rippled here and there by a soft puff of air. In a sunstruck July last summer, this day might have been the most genuinely memorable.
Now come the bivalves themselves, shucked and served with piquant prosecco from a bar set right in the water. “Just throw the shells back in the pond,” we’re told. Oyster fanatics all have their favorites, but it’s hard to imagine an oyster-slurping experience superior to this one.
Jules Opton-Himmel is owner and farmer-in-chief at Walrus & Carpenter Oyster Farm. I asked him how the idea for the Oyster Farm Dinners came about. “It was about six years ago,” he says. “We had a family picnic out here on the beach and someone said, ‘This would be such a cool place for an event.’ Now, quite a few of my family members are claiming to be the one who said that. Maybe it was kind of a group thing.”
Each season (now in its fifth year) Opton-Himmel invites a series of guest chefs over a number of tide-appropriate summer dates to cook and serve these unique al fresco dinners, with wine paired and served by the folks at Bottles Fine Wine, Spirits & Craft Beer in Providence. Eager guests purchase tickets in a highly competitive lottery each spring. Along with eating an unbelievable meal prepared by a toprated local chef, guests get a chance to learn what oyster cultivation is all about.
Opton-Himmel points out that Ninigret Pond has long been known as an ideal place for oyster cultivation. The unique taste qualities that a body of water imparts to shellfish are especially favorable here, and explain the oysters’ lusciousness. “I take no credit,” he says. “We just try to make sure that the oysters are healthy and happy.”
After prosecco and oysters comes another watery stroll to East Beach, just a few yards away by foot, where some diners splash happily in the surf while others simply stretch out and admire the broad, deserted strand and the rollers coming in off Block Island Sound.
Then comes suppertime. Four courses, served family-style. The guests sit at a long table, and don’t have to wait for the first course of smashed cucumbers with lime, pistachio miso, fresh and caramelized crab, sesame and sorrel. The intriguing batch of wines served throughout the experience was selected and is being poured by Eric Taylor and Liam Maloney of Bottles. Eric offers a crisp, bracing Riesling from the Rhine for the crab.
Next: grilled green beans, followed by an off-menu surprise, Four Town corn with chickpea miso. A Sicilian Etna Bianco is a perfect match. Then again, so is the Matthiasson Rosé from California. Or, you could keep drinking Riesling until that runs out. Each sip offers a new revelation.
Then comes the bluefish.
Says Chef James Mark: “When I think of eating fish in the summer, I think of bluefish. I grew up eating it. While it has a reputation of being ‘fishy’ I believe that most folks don’t get it fresh enough nor do they cook it correctly, which leads to this opinion. I think it can be clean tasting and still be full flavored.
“The most important thing is to not overcook the fish—fatty fish, like bluefish, mackerel and fresh sardine are all super mild when raw. It’s when they get cooked that the fat in the fish gets more flavorful. When it gets overcooked, the flavor ends up being what most folks consider ‘fishy’—or they are simply eating fish that isn’t very fresh.”
The fish are big—about 30 inches or so and about seven pounds each. It takes two to turn them as they sizzle on the big gridiron set over coals, the heat from which you can feel six feet away. When they arrive on the table, they are indeed “semi-boneless,” but the predatory head is still on, jaws agape and the ripsaw-sharp teeth remind you that this is a merciless ocean hunter. “Bite your hand off, man,” observes one diner, reaching rather gingerly for a cheek. In fact, he’s got some competition, because diners just can’t seem to get enough of this fish. Up and down the table, they are murmuring versions of “I never dreamed bluefish could be so fabulous.”
While no one seems to notice very much which wine goes with which course, that changes when we get to the blues, which Taylor has paired rather imaginatively with a Broc Zinfandel from California. It works! The smoky, peppery Zin marries beautifully with the aromatic, crispy char on the fish skin, and the sweetness of its meat—so oceanic it’s almost like sashimi—stands up to the robust red. We all congratulate ourselves for noticing this, then we congratulate Mark and Taylor for providing the artistry.
By the time the north bakery cookies arrive, we are in a state of Zenlike tranquility. The sugar jolt does nothing to alter anyone’s mood as we re-board boats back to the mainland. By now the sun is setting and Ninigret Pond glows brighter than the sky as a V of geese makes a diagonal across the violet bowl above, honking enviously.
For more information on Walrus & Carpenter Oysters, its summer farm dinners or its weekly farm tours (ticketed, along with wine and oysters), visit WalrusAndCarpenterOysters.com.