Thursday, June 11, 2015

"He was a very valiant man who first adventured on eating of oysters." James I of England

Unless they were served at the Milford Oyster House

Let’s be clear, I love Oysters. If they are on the menu, they find their way to my plate. I have eaten Namibian Oysters in Africa, sampled various types from the cold waters surrounding the British Isles, and even had Japanese oysters sushi style while on business in Nagoya. I have never met someone without an opinion on Oysters. People either love them or hate them.  Tasty, slimy, expensive and an aphrodisiac, Oysters are one of our most ritualistic foods. With or without lemon?  Naked, cocktail or hot sauce? Slurped or eaten with a dainty fork? Then there is that R-Month thing. When the Dutch first arrived on the island that is now Manhattan it was covered in oyster beds, a treat enjoyed by the native Lenape Indians. By the 19th century, the oyster beds of New York Harbor were the largest source of these creatures in the world. You could get raw oysters from street vendors or from local oyster “saloons”  where they were offered raw, scalloped, fried, dipped in butter, pan roasted or made into a stew.

 It is no accident that Oysters are often consumed at the bar. Americans pioneered booze and oyster pairing. The New York oyster taverns of the 19th century are where many Americans tried drinking spirits with their oysters for the first time. The success of these taverns spread south and reached New Orleans where the pairing art advanced from mulled and brewed  beverages to luscious bivalves paired with the likes of a dirty martini, gin gimlet or a Hemingway daiquiri. The love of Oysters even spread to the banks of the nationally designated Wild and Scenic Delaware River in the form of the Milford Oyster House.

 The 2015 Zagat survey says the Milford Oyster House just might be New Jersey's best seafood restaurant. As one would expect in this region chock full of 18th century structures, MOH is housed in an old stone mill where guests are welcomed into rooms featuring stone walls, wood beams and fireplaces typical of the time the river was the primary highway of commerce between Philadelphia and New York. Chef Ed Coss offers a menu featuring such favorites as Crab Norfolk and Oyster House Shellfish Stew. Daily specials feature the freshest fish available at the market that day. As a New American style kitchen, one can expect an innovative combination of fresh-as locally as possible, high quality ingredients and rich textures. Desserts are the domain of the chef’s sister, often based on their grandmother’s recipes. The wine list is carefully chosen to match the largely seafood menu. True to the Oyster House tradition, guests can skip the formal dining room for the more casual tavern room with menu favorites such as burgers, fish ‘n’ chips, creative sandwiches and of course oysters on the half shell.

 Chef Coss is a graduate of the C.I.A in Hyde Park, N.Y. He became executive chef at a number of notable area restaurants, including the Court Cafe in Somerville, NJ and the Top of the Marq at the Marquis de Lafayette Hotel in Cape May, where he earned three and a half stars from the Philadelphia Inquirer. By 1997 Chef was ready for his own restaurant so he purchased the Milford Oyster House which he moved to its current location in 2005. MOH does its best to blend a rich, traditional dining experience with innovative cuisine meaning it is not a place for a quick bite. You go to MOH for a dining experience not for a meal. To put emphasis on this, there is no wifi because dining at MOH is meant to be savored uninterrupted by today’s technology. 

 We had spent the afternoon exploring the Cooper Mill-still grinding flour the old fashioned way- and hiking along the adjacent Black River, in the central New Jersey Highlands, so as we rolled into Milford late in the afternoon we had a substantial hunger. We had called ahead before leaving the Mill, thinking a reservation was a “nice to have” would not a necessity but we learned quite the opposite. Unless you are willing to wait as long it takes to get into the tavern section, you will need a reservation for the dining room. It was also the evening before Mother’s Day which we learned is also a bigger deal than I thought, even in rural Milford. We were greeted with a smile and ushered to our table. The service in general was friendly and clearly focused on customer satisfaction. I had Oysters on the brain and was not disappointed by what I found to be an ever-changing roster of oysters- typically four to six selections. This particular evening featured six selections from the Delaware Bay, Long Island, Cape Cod and New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. I savored two of  each oyster which are served with lemon wedges and your choice of cocktail sauce or mignonette- dainty fork optional. Each oyster varied in its brine content which the MOH servers are careful to point out so that you can savor the progression. I was definitely ready for another dozen.

 However, despite the name, I did not come just for the Oysters. We followed the Oysters with a big bowl of mussels which had been simmered in a delicious garlic, wine and olive oil broth that served to not only bring out the great flavor of the mussels but also serve as a great “dip” for the crusty and delicious house bread. For our main dishes we returned to the main event with fried oysters and sesame encrusted tuna steak. The fried oysters were light and deliciously flavored making me wish I had ordered them all for myself. The I ordered the tuna medium rare to rare. However when it came it was barely room temperature. While deliciously prepared, the cut also had a membrane that made it difficult to enjoy. The house recognized their error in both serving temperature and preparation of the tuna steak and without hesitation removed it from the bill.  The wine list clearly was put together with focus towards great pairings. I selected the Gabbiano Chianti Classico. According to the sommelier, the Gabbiano had won easily against other Chiantis in a staff blind taste test. While I cannot say it was the best chianti I have ever had it was very good with its rich with berry and pepper flavors serving as a  great compliment to the oysters.

 The experience ended on a very positive dessert note. I am a sucker for a good key lime pie and this one did not disappoint at all- a feast for both the eyes and taste buds with just the right combination of tangy, creamy and crumbly. Overall the Milford Oyster House was a great experience despite the issues with the tuna. I will definitely return this summer for another oyster and seafood experience from this excellent kitchen and top notch staff.

 A few last notes on Oysters- Ever wonder about that adage about only eating oysters in months having an r? It’s because before refrigeration the non- R months- May, June, July and August- were harder for keeping Oysters cold and fresh. But there is another reason- in the summer months the bivalves are spawning, which may give some selections more mild and watery flavor. Lastly, no, you will not get turned on by eating Oysters. However, this sexy bivalve contains healthy doses of zinc which is known to boost your sex drive, aid the production of testosterone, up your immune system, make your bones stronger and promote overall energy, all of which might come in handy after dinner.

 The Milford Oyster House is located at 92 Water Street (Rt. 519) Milford, New Jersey,  two tenths of a mile north of Bridge Street. Do call 908-995-9411 for reservations, they are open for dinner every night except Tuesday.

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