Sitting around the Tide and Vine Oyster Bar is akin to gathering at a friend’s house: there is some debate, a little bit of knowledge sharing, and a great deal of laughter going on. One of the first things I learn here is that not everything we consider shellfish, is actually shellfish. “Oysters are not exactly shellfish, they are molluscs and lobster is a crustacean,” states Mike Langley, co-owner of the Tide and Vine Oyster House in Niagara Falls.
“Shrimp are crustaceans, and scallops are shellfish,” adds Kat Steeves, the other half of the Tide and Vine.
I get a chuckle out of the husband and wife team disputing the difference between crustacea and shellfish. Personally, the debate is irrelevant to me, much like the song, “I say tomato, you say tomato, let’s call the whole thing off.” I know all I need to know – I’m in good hands, as the people at the Tide and Vine are the leading experts in the Niagara Region on everything out of the ocean. Really, the only question on my mind is when are we eating?
Langley and Steeves are constantly inspired by the endless ways to cook, prepare, and present seafood, keeping dishes new and exciting. “In the spirit of the seafood culture, what attracted me is the wide variety that comes out of the ocean. There is always stuff to learn,” says Langley, who is also intrigued by the history behind every item on the raw bar.
It is Langley’s passion for historical facts and the art of conversation that promotes a community atmosphere in the restaurant. “What really feeds the culture and cultivates discussion is when people are sitting at the raw bar and hearing the stories. It creates strong reactions in people. There is a lot of myth and mystery that people don’t know: because it is underwater it is a different world than we understand,” says Langley.
Langley relates the difference in oysters to that of varieties of wine. “If it is grown in Italy or Niagara it is going to taste different because the soil for the grapes is different. Same thing happens with the water. You can take an oyster from the east coast but the water, algae, and salt content are different, then they are on say, the West Coast. The grape growers would call that terroir and with seafood we call that meroir,” says Langley.
Eating the Ocean
The scallop, one of the many species of salt water clam, come from a lot of different places, but are most accessible to Niagara from The Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia or Northern Quebec. “Scallops work wonderfully open fresh and eaten raw,” says Langley.
“I love when people see scallops in the shell,” says Steeves.
“Most people don’t know what it is,” adds Langley.
The scallop has a religious history dating back to the middle ages, and has many religious legends associated with it. One of the legends says that Saint James once rescued a knight covered in scallop shells, another says it was the knights horse that fell into the water and reemerged covered in these shells, an event that coincided with the body of St. James being moved from Jerusalem to Galicia.
“Served raw, scallops champagne-vinegar mignonette sauce or scallop ceviche make a great meal. They are easy to season with fresh herbs,” says Steeves. “Scallops cook well in or out of the shell. You can put them on the barbeque and glaze with a simple herb and garlic butter sauce.” Pan seared scallops with Niagara strawberries and grilled bacon remains Steeves favourite way to prepare and eat scallops.
“It’s pretty crazy because I don’t know another animal that can have one of it’s limbs removed be put back in the water, and have the limb grow back,” says Langley. This is the case with stone crabs though. Considered a delicacy, when separated in the right spot, the stone crab is a sustainable must-try choice on the raw bar. The stone crab has a short season: blink and you might miss it.
“It is cooked and then served cold, but it is delicious dipped in hot butter,” says Steeves. Although it is so sweet you don’t even need a sauce, Steeves serves up an aioli sauce that will give the claw a little kick. Harvested between October and May, the stone crab is a delectable and popular dish especially in the southern U.S.A. In Port Charlotte, they even have a baseball team named after the crustacean.
Prior to 1950, like the oyster, lobster was considered a poor man’s dish. Over the years, supply of the crustacean became scarce and the lobster was raised to an elite category. The tail isn’t the only part of the lobster that is tasty and some consider the claw meat sweeter. Served cold, the claws are a mouth-watering spin on a classic dish. Dip the cold claws in Steeves’ tarragon and citrus sauce to entice your taste buds. Served hot or cold, lobster is a crowd favourite.
Soft Shell Crab
Available for six months of the year, the sweet and tender meat is typically pan or deep fried and made into po’boy sandwiches, a Tide and Vine signature lunch dish. “The blue crab molts and sheds its shell. Before the new shell grows it can’t move and it is picked up right off the rocks,” explains Langley. As Langley describes it, without a shell what remains is a leathery skin that allows easy access to the meat.
Langley’s suggestion for the best way to eat soft shell crab is to “bread it in cornmeal and serve it on a waffle with chili maple syrup.”
An important member of the shrimp family, the spot prawn has a sweet flavour and firm texture. The spot prawn starts out as a male and within the first two years turns into a female. Caught off the coast of BC, the spot prawn is easily cooked or served raw. “You can steam them and they are wonderful in paella,” says Steeves.
“You can eat the tails raw and still wiggling. Some people put a prawn in a glass of beer until it stops wiggling, shell the tail and eat it, but that is mostly for entertainment. If you steam them, they are nice with beer and mustard,” says Langley.
According to the phrase finder, “As happy as a clam at high water,” is a once common expression that means extremely happy. The meaning originated from the fact that during high tide, clams are free from predators. Hard shelled clams, also called quahog, are mostly found on the east coast. “Quahogs are sweeter, chewier, and a lot less salty,” says Langley. The elusive razor clam grows everywhere and are about five to six inches long. They look like an old fashioned razor.”
“All of them are edible raw or cooked,” adds Steeves. “If you are eating them raw, they go well with lemon and pepper or hot sauce.”
There are a million different ways to prepare and serve mussels,” says Steeves. “Bacon, blue cheese, wine, tomato, or even curry: the possibilities are endless.” Although mussels can be eaten raw, Tide and Vine serves them pickled or cooked and chilled with a marinade, red wine vinegar, fresh herbs and olive oil.
Last, but not least, the oyster is the heart and soul of the raw bar. “Once food for the poor it is now a delicacy for high society,” says Langley. There are many species of oysters, each of them is distinct in their own right. Perhaps the most notable oyster is P.E.I’s Malpeque oyster. “They’re famous, not just because they are delicious, but at the 1900 Paris International Food Convention the Malpeque oysters were dubbed the tastiest oysters on earth. There are only a few farmers doing Malpeque oysters today,” says Langley. Oysters don’t just taste great, they also serve an important role in the ocean. “Oysters are restorative. They clean the water,” says Langley.
Whether you are eating a crustacean, mollusc, or shellfish, at the raw bar variety is the spice of life in food and company. “The raw bar brings people to a time and place of nostalgia. You don’t often get that with other types of foods,” says Langley. There is nowhere else to see the ocean open up before your eyes. As always my time at the Tide and Vine leaves me with a satisfied stomach, a smile on my face, and a little more knowledge under my belt.
Written By: Jill Tham