Flirting with restaurants, fish, and Virginia oysters

Thanks to our friends at Food & Wine as well as the Boston Globe, word got out last week: Island Creek is opening a restaurant. While I have to admit I've known about the project for awhile, it didn't sink in until I heard people talking about it publicly. Finally, the announcements have been made and I can breathe a sigh of relief for not spilling the beans. (For the record, the foodie gossip in me was going bananas trying to keep that one from you guys. Consider me a vault.) Come August, Kenmore Square will have the world's first Island Creek Oyster Bar complete with a menu by Jeremy Sewall and a staff and dining room overseen by ES proprietor Garrett Harker. Of course, there are plenty of other details about the space that I'd like to share (grumble grumble) but I will hold off until the partners behind the project say it's time. Please take my word for it: Oyster lovers will be thrilled.

Still, the farm is the farm is the farm and things are chugging right along this spring. We're seeing more and more growth on the oyster seed from last year and, despite a few headaches with the most recent crop (the 2008 seed hasn't been as productive as the growers hoped), the oysters are as plentiful as ever.

In fact, with summer on our heels (despite today's 40 degree temps), it's time for Island Creek to start selling fish. The past few summers, they've expanded their product line, selling locally caught, quota-managed fish directly to their restaurant customers. The guys at the farm are psyched since it means being able to show off all the great fish you can find off the coast of the South Shore. And chefs love it because it's freshly caught and they know exactly where it's coming from.

So, on Friday afternoon I picked up a call at the office from fisherman Mike Lundholm (who sells exclusively to Island Creek); he announced that one day into the black fish season, which opened on April 15, he had pulled up about 100 pounds and was delivering to the shop later that night. Were we ready, he wondered? I floundered a little, looked at Lisa and shrugged, asking, are we ready? We'd have to call him back, she said. We called Shore who was on his way out of town for the weekend: Were we ready for 100 pounds of tautog? Yup, he assured us, we'll be ready. And so, fish season at Island Creek is officially underway. What this means for the wholesale arm is that they'll be getting Mike's catch delivered to the shop daily; the guys will then pound the pavement to put it out to restaurants. In fact, I ran into CJ and Chris on Friday night at Erbaluce at the end of a long day of deliveries. They'd been talking tautog with chefs all day. And tautog is just the beginning. Fisherman Mike will be bringing us his black sea bass, fluke, and stripers as soon as those seasons open up too. It's a pretty sweet program for the farm and it's been great to see how they put it all together.

We've also got a trip to Virginia coming up -- Skip has known the guys behind the Cherrystone Aqua Farm for years and starting about two years ago, those guys tried their hand at growing oysters. We tasted the results last week and despite my loyalty (ok, obsession) with New England-grown oysters, even I was impressed. I'm partial to cold-water oysters from the northeast because the salinity alone gives them a flavor profile that's tough to match. But the Misty Points (from VA) had a lot of salinity and even a little sweetness at the end, similar to Island Creeks. They're a different looking oyster of course, more elongated and spindly but they're full of meat.

I spoke to their production manager, Tim Rapine, about how they've been growing them out and he explained that their oysters only take about 10-14 months to get up to 3 inches. The warmer waters make the oysters grow a little quicker and by the time they reach 14 months, they're about the same size as ours are at 18 months. Island Creek has started selling the oysters up here so Skip, Shore, Chris and I are traveling down to see their farm in early May -- I'm looking forward to reporting back after we see the operation.