Just try to cross the threshold of Logan Brown, New Zealand’s paean to Kiwi bounty, without letting out a gasp. Housed in a cathedral-like former bank building in Wellington, the restaurant presents thoughtful meals that unfurl in an octagonal Art Deco dining room lined with white columns that extend up to the soaring vaulted ceiling. During the day, light spills from two-story-tall windows tucked under plastered arches. Such a contemplative space is deserving of contemplative dishes, and indeed the menu is punctuated with meditations on New Zealand’s greatest hits: wild venison from the southwestern Fiordland, sustainably raised king salmon from the South Island’s sprawling Marlborough Sounds and, of course, local lamb. But make no mistake. I’m here for the oysters.
Bluff oysters, to be specific. The native species is genetically distinct from any variety cultivated in the United States and is endemic to the whole of New Zealand (and, strangely, parts of Chile). But the most prized of these mollusks — briny, sweet, and with a tangy metallic finish — grow in the bone-chilling waters of New Zealand’s Foveaux Strait just off the modest seaport of Bluff, the tiny nation’s southernmost town, which is about 600 miles from here. Though rough and treacherous, salt-hardened souls have clamored to fish this choppy 16-mile stretch since the 1860s. It’s one of the last remaining wild oyster fisheries in the world.
I’ve eaten oysters on four continents, but Bluffs are an uncommon delight. There’s a whiff of France’s Belon oysters to them, with their zinc-forward smack, although downing a Bluff is much less like sucking on a handful of pennies. Their unique taste is more balanced, like mineral-y seawater shot through with sweet cream. It’s a bold flavor that may not suit a meek palate, but they’re magic for those of us who crave all manner of salty briny things. Nothing shucked at my neighborhood oyster happy hour in New York City comes close.
But I’ll wager you’ve never heard of Bluffs. The reason is simple: Precious few of them are available. Only 10 million oysters are pulled from Foveaux Strait a season, with dredging beginning in March and continuing either through August or when the quota is reached, whichever comes first. (To put this paltry figure in perspective, New York state’s Blue Island Oyster Farm alone produces 10 million oysters a year.) In reaction to decades of overfishing and disease that once devastated the population, the regulations are understandably strict. Today, only about two dozen ships are legally permitted to trawl oysters in the strait, and local demand for Bluffs is so high that oystering companies have scant inclination to explore foreign markets.
It’s little wonder then that Bluffs are a national obsession. You can find them in grocery stores and fine-dining restaurants alike, and locals are quick to swoon with pride when Bluffs come up in conversation. Each May, the town of Bluff hosts the Bluff Oyster Festival, which this year shucked around 20,000 oysters for roughly 5,500 mollusk junkies from across the country. The event is a beer-soaked affair complete with marine-themed fashion (think iridescent jellyfish dresses with dancing fabric tentacles and full-body prawn costumes) and Olympics-like oyster-shucking relays. “Unsophisticated and proud of it!” proclaims the festival website.
Today, only about two dozen ships are legally permitted to trawl oysters in New Zealand’s Foveaux Strait, and local demand for Bluffs is so high that oystering companies have scant inclination to explore foreign markets.
Given this level of enthusiasm, it’s remarkably strange that New Zealanders rarely ever eat fresh Bluff oysters. To most oyster lovers, that’s sacrilege.
“When we sell them live, they don’t stay closed as well as a Pacific oyster,” explains Graham Wright, the manager of Barnes Wild Bluff Oysters, one of the country’s largest processors of Bluffs. Because the Bluff is a deep-water oyster, he says, it dries out and dies after a day or two in the open air. Compare that to the Pacific oyster, which lives in shallower depths and is therefore used to rising and falling tides. It can survive for over a week out of water if stored properly on ice. To simplify things, Wright says that in recent decades most operations have opted to pluck oysters from their shells and pack the raw meat in a saline-like solution, which preserves their moisture and coloration. Oyster meat is then sold to restaurants in plastic tubs called pottles. Consumers are generally advised to consume pottled oysters within five days of their packing date.
“We courier a lot of shells to restaurants so they can present them on the shell,” Wright says. “Some might call it barbaric, I suppose. We’re maybe the only country in the world that does it that way.”
Convinced that high-end restaurants in major cities would strive to serve Bluffs as nature intended — alive, straight from the shell — I called about half a dozen notable establishments, which, I was surprised to learn, either relied on pottled Bluffs or didn’t serve them at all. A few served farmed Bluff oysters from Marlborough Sounds, which have earned praise from chefs. The only restaurant I could find that reliably sold freshly shucked Bluffs was Logan Brown in Wellington.
“There’s only a real handful of places that do it,” says executive chef Sean Clouston. A native New Zealander, Clouston grew up eating pottled Bluffs without thinking twice about it. His eureka moment came nearly a decade ago during a stint at the now-shuttered iconic Wildfire restaurant in Sydney, Australia. “We had a raw bar there, and all the oysters we were getting from all the different parts of Australia,” Clouston recalls. “Every single time I would shuck an oyster and [think], ‘It’s much better to be serving something live than something that’s been dead for several days.’ It just doesn’t taste the same.”
Upon his return to New Zealand in 2006, serving fresh-from-the-shell Bluffs became a priority. “It’s a big difference in the flavor” between pottled and live oysters, he says. The ideal Bluff “tastes like the Southern Ocean, clean with a nice brininess to it and a little bit of creaminess.” At best, pottled Bluffs tend to have a dulled flavor, and at worst, taste like they’re about to turn.
“We like to showcase things at their best,” says Clouston, who contends that the extra cost and manpower required to served live Bluffs is worthwhile, even patriotic. “I’d like to believe that as we go along, more and more people will demand them,” he says.
It’s a hard thing to argue with when presented with one of Clouston’s briny beauties. Dressed either with a spray of oak-aged apple vinegar mignonette or a tart slick of lime, mirin, and glowing orbs of salmon caviar, the quivering Bluffs at Logan Brown are fat and round, dwarfing the slight Pacific variety it shares space with on the menu. I close my eyes and slurp down my duo of Bluffs, silent except for an involuntary moan. I’d cross an ocean for these, I think. Yes, I certainly would.