Want some ideas on how to serve oysters other than on ice with a little cocktail sauce and/or vinaigrette? Brian Ashness is the guy to ask.
“You have to try this,” says the big man who boasts a huge smile when talking or preparing oysters at Midtown Oyster Bar at the corner of Thames Street and Memorial Boulevard, smack dab in the thick of Newport summer bustle. “It’s a good one.”
Ashness, a Warwick native and raw bar chef at the restaurant that opened three years ago, lays down four Rhode Island-raised oysters on little beds of sea salt, topping them with jalapeno, bourbon butter, fresh lime juice and chives and firing up a small torch to heat them for his aptly named “Torched Oyster” appetizer.
He is so right. This dish is beyond delicious and easy to see why it’s one of Midtown’s most popular offerings. The restaurant is one of more than a dozen statewide that are part of the Rhode Island Oyster Trail, a self-guided tour created by Bowens Wharf Co. to highlight the growing aquaculture scene in Little Rhody. Check it out at www.rioystertrail.com, where you’ll find one terrific video on the topic produced by Bowens’ marketing team.
The oyster tour is a hot idea, and Midtown is one of the hottest spots to try them. Ashness delights in talking to patrons about the treats, and the seven-seat raw bar is an ideal spot for one-on-one convos.
“I like being able to talk to people here, it’s an intimate setting,” he says of his little cozy corner in a sprawling restaurant that seats 350 over two floors. “The big four of oysters people want are largest, smallest, saltiest and sweetest.”
If you order a sample platter and wonder where in Rhode Island they’re from, Ashness has that covered. He stabs popsicle sticks bearing each farm’s location in the ice near the oysters to let you know where they were grown, so if you have a favorite, you’ll remember to order them next time. There is also a chalkboard by the raw bar outlining exactly what’s on ice that day. He’s also producing an informational handout for customers to help educate them on all-things oyster.
Midtown is a busy spot, serving about 180,000 oysters last summer, he says. This year’s good seasonal weather should have them topping 200,000. And the tiny creature is big business in Rhode Island: Last year, the state’s aquaculture farmers harvested 8.2 million oysters for consumption, a jump of 725,000 from the year before.
Before I leave, nearly sated from eating so many oysters, Ashness makes another of his original creations, a clam ceviche dish with fresh chopped hard shell clam meat, generous squeezes of lemon and lime, a dollop of Thai chili paste, mixed into chopped celery, red onion, scallion and mango. It is unreal, a perfect, tangy mix of sweet and heat, and when I got home I made some for friends.
They raved about it. For which I had no one but Brian Ashness to thank. Chat him up for your own ideas, it’ll make the big man smile.