The classic plateau de fruits de mer, literally meaning "platter of the fruits of the sea," is a showy affair: a dazzling tiered tower of crab, lobster, clams, oysters, snails and every other bivalve and shellfish under the sea. But don't judge a book by its cover -- just 'cause it looks fancy doesn't mean you can't create the effect in your own home.
Save yourself a trip to the local French brasserie or seafood restaurant and impress your guests (or just yourself) with these tower-building tips on the half shell from Ben Pollinger, the executive chef of Michelin-starred Oceana.
Five Tips for the Ultimate Seafood Platter: Ben Pollinger
1. Don't be "shrimpy" on the size
"When creating the ultimate raw bar, it's a must to include shrimp cocktail, chilled lobster, clams and oysters on the half shell. From there, the possibilities are endless.
I also always include Alaskan King crab legs (you can use snow crab legs or Peekytoe crabmeat if Alaskan King are not readily available). Taking it up a notch, add some chilled steamed mussels and a type of snail - periwinkles or whelks, they are easier to deal with than you think. And, if you really want that wow factor, include some small dishes of ceviches or tartares with vibrant citrus flavors.
Every raw platter needs basic cocktail sauce, it's such an iconic flavor, that alongside some some other tasty dipping sauces, either store-bought or homemade, will really jazz up your raw bar plate.
Something mayonnaise-based like a tangy roasted pepper aïoli goes great with chilled cooked shellfish, while a slightly herb-thickened vinaigrette tastes delicious on anything. Remember to include a mignonette for the oysters -- you need acid, spice and pungency -- my suggestion is to change up the classic with a seaweed-infused vinegar, crushed chilis and some shallots."
2. Let's get cracking
"First thing first, don't put up a platter without pre-cracked claws unless everyone will be sitting down at a table -- it's like putting your oysters and clams on the plate unopened. That said, you can use a fancy shellfish cracker, but a good old basic metal handheld nutcracker works great.
Put the thickest part of the claw in between the teeth, bear down then compress without squeezing too hard so you don't crush the meat - only crack the shell. If you've done this right you will have two pieces, pull the shell off one side then use the cocktail fork to pull the meat out of the other."
3. Old school East Coast/West Coast (oyster) rivalry -- it's not just for rap music
"There will always be aficionados of one coast or the other. Personally, I'm into the East Coast myself. I like the brininess and firmness.
West Coast tend to be a little softer but plumper, less briny, and have a cucumber-melon kind of flavor. I have found a great new West Coast oyster, the Stellar Bay Gold from British Columbia, Canada. All oysters can be tumbled in the shell to break the growing lip, which causes the cup to become deeper and the oyster meatier. These guys take it to the extreme. The cup is almost as deep as it is long - a great oyster.
Some of my favorite East Coasters, which I bring in direct from the farmers, are Glidden Points from Maine, Moonstones from Rhode Island, East Dennis from Massachusetts. New York has winners too - Widow's Hole, Fisher's Island and the Naked Cowboy.
But the king of them all is the Belon. Technically it has to be from France to be a Belon but they do have some of this species in Maine. It's got a great full flavor with metallic notes.
When buying oysters, be sure to ask your fishmonger how they are stored. Oysters should be stored in a container that allows for melted ice to drain away, covered in ice and topped with seaweed, wet newspaper or wet kitchen towels. The oysters need to be kept cold and humid and not allowed to be stored cold and dry.
Be sure to also ask if they are wet-stored, particularly if you are on the East Coast and the oysters are West Coast. Wet-storage is when the oysters are harvested then held in sea water tanks in a central location, generally to make the harvesting and shipping process more predictable. It doesn't hurt the oysters, but I believe it causes them to lose their 'merroir' -- the taste of the sea from which they came (much like the term 'terroir' is used in wine to indicate the flavor characteristics picked up from a wine's growing location).
The merroir is special because it contains some of the sea water from where the oyster grew and wet-stored oysters will lose that. After some time in a tank, two oysters from two different places will come to taste the same."
4. The wild card
"Break out the caviar if you want to impress -- and you can do so without breaking the bank. Find some great farmed American caviar, particularly from the hackleback (aka shovelnose) sturgeon or the white sturgeon (aka transmontanous). These are great choices, sustainable and affordable.
Place the chilled tin right on the ice with a mother-of-pearl or horn spoon (available where you buy the caviar) as metal spoons can impart a taste. Keep it simple, if you don't want to buy or make blinis, then you can put out some unsalted crackers and some crème fraiche."
5. Cocktail complements
"There's the classic oyster wine from the Loire Valley in France, Sèvre et Maine -- it can't be beat. Chenin blanc from Washington state is a great alternative, and you can't go wrong with Champagne.
Premake a few oyster shooters to really jazz it up. Place a shucked oyster in a tall shot glass, half a shot of vodka and a little fruit purée like melon, apple or cherry."