'House oysters' at Jax emphasize sustainability
Mar 14, 2012 (Daily Camera - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Adam Reed, executive manager of Jax Fish House in Colorado, describes it as a "back-door deal."
And he means that literally. Two guys from Virginia knocked on the back door of Jax in Denver with some oysters for chefs and management to taste.
The two oysters farmers, Travis and Ryan Croxton, had been working to take their oyster business national, selling oysters from their "farms" in the Rappahannock River and Chesapeake Bay to restaurants nationwide. They realized, however, that they didn't have any clients in the intermountain West. They did have one thing: a college buddy in Denver who encouraged them to come on out.
"What we do is fly samples out with us. We keep them cold. We rent a car," says Travis Croxton.
Their strategy was to target restaurants with excellent reputations for seafood. On that morning, they parked the car right besides Jax, where, as it turned out they could see in the window. They saw a woman gathering up the trash to take out. They asked to speak to the chef. Turns out she was the chef, Sheila Lucero, the executive chef for the Jax restaurants in Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins.
"We hit it off immediately. She was working her tail off to get things prepped for service," Croxton says. After a taste, Lucero said, "Let me call Dave (Query, proprietor of Jax and the other Big Red F restaurants.)
What the Croxtons were offering was an exclusive arrangement in which Jax would take all the oysters from certain beds being farmed. The oysters are called Emersums, as in "Em are sum good oysters." That the Croxtons used sustainable aquaculture methods, and worked with groups to help restore depleted oyster stocks in Chesapeake Bay, didn't hurt either.
Query called in Jamey Fader, chef at Lola in Denver, who hails from Virginia, as an expert on the subject. They were all impressed.
Jax Executive Manager Adam Reed describes the oysters as a good mix of brininess, salt and butteryness. They're medium size, making them easier to manage raw, but also making them suitable for cooking. The restaurant will offer a four-course oyster dinner on March 21 as part of its annual Oyster Month celebration.
Croxton says oysters were once so plentiful in Chesapeake Bay that Capt. John Smith wrote that they posed a navigation problem, because the reefs reached so close to the surface. Years of harvesting without giving oysters a chance to replenish has devastated the oyster population.
"Over time, they depleted (the reefs) until they were turning up the sand into mud," Croxton says. That, in turn, destroyed underwater grasses that kept sediment in place and fostered other species such as blue crabs.
Thus, he and his cousin use an aquaculture system that mimics natural processes without disturbing the river and bay bottom. They first get seed oysters, each about the size of a grain of sand from a nursery and place them on seed mesh in bottomless buckets that let in a constant flow of river water, the oysters feeding on algae in the water. Once they reach the size of a dime, they are placed on trays with legs to keep them out off the bottom and encased in mesh bags to grow. The growing time ranges from 9 to 18 months.
The cousins also work with conservation groups that add shells (some of which come from Jax after the oysters have been slurped) onto the bay bottom to help build up new reefs in areas where harvesting is forbidden. The group drops seed oysters in the water and lets them attach naturally to the shell reef being formed. The work not only provides the hope of replenished oyster beds; oyster also filter and clean water, roughly 60 gallons per mollusk, Croxton says.
The relationship not only provides Jax with a consistent supply -- the Croxtons sell Jax about 7,000 oysters a week -- but the taste is also consistent, due to merroir, the watery equivalent of terroir. While Jax offers many distinctive tasting oysters from both west and east coasts, the chefs know that their house oyster will have a consistent taste due to the qualities of the water and river bed where it is grown.
How to eat an oyster
Adam Watts, chef de cuisine of Boulder's Jax, says raw is the way to go to truly appreciate an oyster. While he serves them with a simple mignonette made of, say, red wine, Champagne, shallots and black pepper, he recommends the first taste be with only a squeeze of lemon, if that.
"I'm a purist when it comes to oysters," he says. "You really can't experience and oyster unless you eat it plain."
While some of the oysters Jax sells have a deserved reputation for their special flavor, Reed says the Emersums hold their own.
"It's a highly consistent and delicious little mollusk we get to enjoy every day," he says.
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