Boise on the Half Shell 

Restaurants, locals embrace oysters in a landlocked state

click to enlarge courtesywaterbearbar.jpg

Courtesy Water Bear Bar

Idaho isn't exactly the seafood capital of America. Anyone looking for something caught "fresh" off the coast has to wait at least a few days, but that wait has done little to slow coastal food trends on their journeys to Boise. Just ask the team at Water Bear Bar.

To accompany its wide selection of classic and modern cocktails, Water Bear serves oysters on the half shell. Co-owners Kylie North and Laura Keeler always intended for oysters to play a role in the bar's appeal, but thought they would take a back seat to the drinks.

"First and foremost, we're a cocktail bar," said Water Bear Marketing Specialist Heather Newman. "None of our food is meant to be the star—the star is the bar."

But the locals caught them by surprise. In the first week after the bar's soft opening this summer, the Water Bear team shucked 1,500 oysters.

"It was so much more than we anticipated that we thought, 'Wow, Boise is really into oysters!' The people have shown us how ready they are for us," Newman said.

Since then, North and Keeler's oysters have sold out regularly. They're putting to rest the myth that you can't get fresh (read: unspoiled) oysters in a landlocked state, and they're not doing it alone.

At Reel Foods Fish Market, restaurant Owner Marcus Bonilla sells three to seven oyster varieties on any given day. Some of his biggest sellers, ranging in price from $1.50 to $2 each, are Kusshi oysters from British Columbia, Quilcene oysters from Washington and Kumamoto oysters from California. Bonilla doesn't yet have a fully operational oyster bar, but he'll still shuck a few for any customer who needs a saltwater fix.

Meanwhile, oysters have always been a staple at Petite 4. This summer, the French-inspired bistro rolled out an oyster cart in addition to its weekday happy hour oyster offerings. On select Friday nights, patrons could enjoy oysters shucked to order, shrimp cocktail, tinned fish and Champagne on the patio. The cart brought in guests by the dozens who polished off 200 East Coast oysters each night, according to Petite 4 Co-owner David "D.K." Kelly.

click to enlarge HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry

For the truly adventurous, the Owyhee Tavern on Main Street even sells a dozen oysters as part of its $100 seafood tower.

So, how did Boise manage to dive this deep? Well, it turns out the oyster has been experiencing a nationwide renaissance—an oyster-sance if you will—for some time.

American aquaculture is a $1.5 billion industry, and its farms produce millions of pounds of oysters, clams, mussels, shrimp and salmon. The demand for wild-caught seafood has stayed consistent, but "sales of domestic marine aquaculture increased 13% per year from 2007 to 2011, on average, led by increases in oyster and salmon production," according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Of the three regions driving aquaculture production, the Pacific (Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska and Hawaii) accounts for the most at 41%.

Maybe it's a coincidence that the most prolific region for oyster production also contributes some of the highest numbers to Idaho's booming population growth. But if you ask Bonilla, he'll say it's more than that. After all, 32% of the people who moved to Idaho in 2016 hailed from either California or Washington.

"We have seen an uptick in oyster sales," Bonilla said. "And with Boise's constantly changing demographics, I have seen more people come in from California and the East Coast who had oysters at places like Water Bear and want more. People are bringing in a taste for oysters and a desire for fresh, never-frozen seafood."

Considering Boise's sharp growth trajectory, Kelly isn't surprised by changing tastes.

"People haven't always been able to get [oysters] here," he said. "But in big cities, they're everywhere. And there was no way we were going to feature seafood in Boise without oysters. At Petite 4, they're never wasted because I'll eat them."

When it comes to getting good seafood, Bonilla and Newman agree that freshness matters just as much as taste. Thanks to technology and quality-control standards, maintaining both has been not just doable, but relatively easy.

"Any time an oyster comes out of the water, the purveyor has to test it for three days for viruses and bacteria," Bonilla explained. "Then it's shipped. Our freshest oysters are four days out of the water, but that's only one day longer than you would get them on the coast. And they still taste like they just came out of the ocean."

Bonilla say you'll know a bad oyster when you smell it. Filled with a saltwater liqueur, shucked oysters give off a strong, pure ocean smell. If you shuck an oyster and it's dry, that means it has been cracked, and is on its last leg.

At Water Bear, Newman says it's dedication to quality that keeps Boiseans coming back.

"The ethos behind our oysters is similar to what's behind the bar," she said. "It's the intention and the process as well as the freshness. We shuck every oyster to order, just like we make every syrup in-house. We respect our living product."

Water Bear's in-house "oyster king" oversees deliveries and makes sure new shipments are immediately put on ice to rest. It's not unusual to find members of the Water Bear team talking or singing to the bivalves—treating the living gold washed ashore in the desert with utmost care.

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