September 30, 2012
410 Saint Peter Street St Paul, MN | Event Website
In celebration of the beginning of oyster season, Meritage restaurant in St. Paul hosted their 2nd annual Oysterfest today. The event is an all-day celebration of oysters, with the participation of Meritage’s oyster farm partners from around the country. Attendees of Oysterfest enjoy a variety of freshly shucked oysters, beverage pairings, oyster classes, shucking contests, and live music. This is a unique event that lets Minnesotans enjoy fresh oysters, which are hard to come by in the Midwest.
Meritage regularly offers fresh oysters on its menu, sourcing these oysters from a variety of farms throughout the country. A few of these oyster farms come into town for Oysterfest to showcase their products. Among this year’s participants were Hama Hama Oyster Farm (Hood Canal, WA), Hog Island Oysters (Marshall, CA), Island Creek Oysters (Duxbury, MA), and Penn Cove Shellfish (Penn Cove, WA). The event showcases oysters from both the west and east coasts of the U.S. along with some Canadian varieties.
I was fortunate this year to receive an invitation from Meritage and Island Creek Oysters to participate in an oyster shucking demonstration yesterday. The representatives from Island Creek Oysters were very knowledgeable and provided us with a good overview of the oyster farming industry and their efforts to remain eco-friendly and sustainable while providing the best product possible to their clients. I had never shucked an oyster prior to this weekend, but with a few quick tips I was able to get through a couple with ease.
Ticket sales for Oysterfest begin about a month in advance to the event. General admission tickets run $25, which include one drink ticket and a punch card good for up to 12 oysters. Additional food, drink, and oysters can be purchased with the use of “wooden coins” that can be bought throughout the day. In addition to general admission you also have the option to purchase VIP Passes (limited supply), which run $100 and include unlimited oysters and four drink tickets. VIP ticket holders also get a gift bag along with a commemorative Meritage beer glass.
Being on a Sunday, parking was free throughout downtown St. Paul. We arrived about a half hour early to increase our chances of snagging a nearby stall. Purchasing your tickets in advance and having them mailed to you is highly recommended, as you can bypass the long line of same-day ticket buyers. We were among the first through the doors and caught a glimpse of the Oysterfest staff starting up their long day of shucking. Several staff members told me that over 20,000 oysters were brought in for this year’s event!
Oysterfest features several alcoholic drink options to pair with the oysters you will be eating throughout the day. Each ticket comes with a pint of Summit Brewery’s Oyster Stout (pictured above). Several specialty mixed cocktails are also available at the beverage stations. There is also a station that serves non-alcoholic drinks ranging from sparkling water to soda.
A long day of shucking – Staff members constantly shuck fresh oysters for attendees, making their way through thousands of oysters throughout the day. There is also an oyster shucking competition for attendees to participate in.
The oysters are divided by oyster farm and each farm has their own selection of varieties to sample. Lemon wedges, cocktail sauce, mignonette, and tabasco are readily available throughout the event to dress your oysters to taste. The range of natural flavors among the oyster varieties is interesting and an exploration in it of itself. Some oysters feature mild sweetness with meatier textures, while others are soft and velvety with a strong punch of brine. Every oyster we had today was undeniably fresh, with some of the farmers indicating that the oysters had been in the ocean just a couple days prior to Oysterfest. The freshness and wide variety is a special treat for us here in the Twin Cities, being so far removed from the source of fresh oysters.
In addition to the thousands of oysters, Meritage restaurant offers a small menu of other foods that are made to order. We took a break from slurping down oysters to order a few items. The pomme frites were hot, crunchy, and well seasoned. The clam chowder was a bit thinner than I would have liked, but had good flavor and came with a bag of oyster crackers of course. The Maine lobster roll was by far the priciest item on the menu at $18.50. It is filled with a nice portion of very fresh lobster meat, prepared with a light, refreshing, and somewhat minty sauce.
Throughout our visit there was a recurring theme of long lines to get oysters and hectic foot traffic moving from line to line. My wife and I spent a total of 4 hours at the event and had our fair share of oysters, but we did spend a lot of time in lines. The earlier part of the day was a little haphazard, as the wooden coins – the event’s only currency – weren’t available for sale when the doors opened. I was told that this year’s attendance was several times higher than the previous year, so the extra influx of attendees no doubt contributed to the lines and wait. Many of the VIP ticket holders (myself included) felt that with the huge crowd and long lines it was hard to take advantage of the ticket’s unlimited oysters. Hopefully the event organizers are able to compensate for the exploding popularity of Oysterfest next year.
Overall our first visit to Oysterfest proved to be a fun and delicious time. The oyster farmers are all very friendly and engaging, despite the craziness of needing to shuck thousands of oysters. The wide range of oysters and their level of freshness are a delight for any fan of these tasty bivalves. Although we did find ourselves waiting in line for oysters on several occasions, it afforded us the opportunity to mingle and meet new people.
We look forward to seeing a few tweaks in organization next year, with the hope to return to Oysterfest again!
410 Saint Peter Street
St Paul, MN 55102