Food & Drink

The Sustainable Oyster

by Rachel Signer June 12, 2018
ReadThe Sustainable Oyster

A visit aboard Grand Banks, a former 1940s cod schooner-turned-floating bar docked on the Hudson River, is a throwback to a time when oyster culture was an important part of New York City life. In the 19th century, oyster barges lined Manhattan’s waterfront and fishermen would empty their catch off one side of the boat, while people gathered at the stern to purchase fresh shellfish. The delectable bivalves grew all around the island’s edges and were a staple food—a renewable and inexpensive source of nourishment. A confluence of industrial pollution, overfishing and development has, however, reduced New York’s oyster population.

For Grand Banks co-owner Alex Pincus, a former architect and lifelong sailor, the boat is about more than providing the after-work crowd with a happy hour spot. On a deeper level, the vessel is meant to reconnect New Yorkers to their city’s history—including supporting sustainably produced seafood. The kitchen hidden below deck, helmed by executive chef Kerry Heffernan, celebrates local ingredients that are considerately sourced from the nearby waters. And if there is one star, it is the oyster.

“There’s almost nothing bad about them,” Heffernan tells me after we settle under the yellow striped awnings at Grand Banks and a plate of shining oysters appears accompanied by a shallow dish of housemade ramp mignonette. Bivalves filter the water around them and live off plankton and algae, Heffernan goes on to explain, resulting in an incredibly sustainable food source. The chef even grows his own oysters at his home in Sag Harbor, a hobby he describes as a “labor of love.” He shows me a picture of the tiny oyster seeds he recently received, which will be ready to harvest in three years time.

Heffernan’s conservation efforts extend beyond his own backyard and floating kitchen. He lobbies in Washington on behalf of the Environmental Defense Fund and is involved in campaigns such as Save Our Stripers, a program that calls attention to the danger of striped bass becoming overfished and preempts government action—which can be too little, too late, Heffernan says, adding, “I’m trying to get chefs to act.”

For a significant amount of fish species, overfishing is indeed a major threat (a recent study predicts the worldwide collapse of fisheries by 2048). This is mostly due to the lack of regulation in fisheries. Boats should release any catch that are pregnant or small enough to still breed in order to keep populations strong—but turning extra profit or satisfying market demand often takes precedence. In the U.S., where some of the strictest fishing regulations are already in place, cod and bass populations have nevertheless suffered.

In addition to speaking out about protecting the ocean’s resources, Heffernan uses his menu as a way to emphasize sustainable options. Striped bass, for example, is not served at Grand Banks—nor is cod, which, Pincus points out, is ironic since the vessel originally sailed as a cod schooner. Instead, the menu features lesser-known local fish, like the white and meaty Montauk Sea Bream, the perfect base for the house ceviche. Salmon makes an appearance in certain dishes—but only when it’s wild harvested from Alaska. Farmed fish, Heffernan tells me, is wasteful, because they consume large amounts of bottom feeders in order to grow—and the use of antibiotics is healthy for neither the people who consume the fish, nor the ocean.

For oysters, Grand Banks favors Atlantic-grown varieties, focusing on what’s local, though they do feature West Coast bivalves as well. (See below for his favorite East Coast picks.) “We try not to be preachy,” Heffernan says, emphasizing that he wants people to enjoy seafood, but ideally care about how it is sourced, too.

To that end, Pincus helped found the Maritime Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to preserving and promoting maritime culture that is now in the process of restoring the last remaining 19th century oyster barge in the world. The plan is to fix up the ship, which once graced the waters surrounding Manhattan, and bring it to the New York waterfront—a formidable task that requires dismantling the fragile, wooden vessel, then transporting and reassembling it. Pincus and his partners hope to ultimately open the barge to the public as a restaurant serving local seafood and, of course, the mighty oyster. What better place for it to make a comeback?

Chef Heffernan’s Crudo of Porgy with Rhubarb, Clementine Oil & Wild Chives

Serves 4

1 lb Porgy boneless fillet (skin on) or 12 oz of sea scallops
1 medium stalk fresh rhubarb, firm and unblemished
2 clementines
1 large orange
3 oz canola oil
1 oz or small bunch (wild) chives
2 sprigs tarragon
juice of one lemon
sea salt to taste

1. With a very sharp and thin knife, remove from skin and bloodline the upper and lower lobes of the fillet, and carefully slice Porgy at a 45-degree angle beginning at the tail, leaving meat in the same position it came off the fillet. Place on plastic film on a large plate and refrigerate.
2. Rinse the orange and clementine in hot water then zest each fruit, placing the zest into 2 oz of the canola oil and bring the mixture to about 200 degrees. Allow to cool overnight. Juice the clementine and reserve.
3. Depending on the size of the rhubarb, slice in half lengthwise (or not) to create ¼-inch lengths. Slice on a 90-degree bias extremely thinly and reserve.
4. Rinse and mince chives into the thinnest possible rounds, pick tarragon leaves from stems and reserve.
5. Assemble by arranging fish attractively on a plate and placing rhubarb and tarragon over top, season well with sea salt and grind black pepper over top, sprinkle chives and dress with clementine oil and citrus juices.

Top 3 East Coast Oysters

1. Tomahawk, Shinnicock Indian Reservation, Southampton, New York
“Intense and rich, buttery with just the right edge of salinity—this is one of my all-time favorites!”

2. Island Creek, Duxbury, Massachusetts
“These folks have brought together bay scallop sweetness (found particularly in the abductor muscle) with cold water brine from Cape Cod Bay that comes to the finish. Unreal, and yet, very reliable.”

3. Black Duck Salts, Hog Island, Virginia
“I never would have imagined that I’d like an oyster from “southern” waters in the summer, but this is a real find. The deep flavors remain clean and exciting throughout. How they culture the bivalve is likely a secret; we just get to be thrilled with the result.”

All images copyright Grand Banks.

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