If You Want to Eat Local Seafood, You Can’t Do Better Than Charleston

From oysters to triggerfish, Charleston’s thriving seafood scene is all about ‘merroir.’

<p>Lindsey Shorter Photography</p> Local Caper’s Blades oysters at The Ordinary

Lindsey Shorter Photography

Local Caper’s Blades oysters at The Ordinary

Charleston chef Jason Stanhope still remembers the first time he tried local soft shell crab. He was staging at FIG, the restaurant where he would go on to work as executive chef under renowned owner Mike Lata for 15 years.

“The shells were so silky and soft,” he says. “We’d wait all year for these crabs to come back out of their shells, and it seemed like a total travesty to put a new shell on them. So we’d sauté them in these cascading waterfalls of brown butter. I can still hear the butter sizzling and smell that rich, salty crab. That was a really special moment for me.”

The concept of terroir — the regional characteristics that give a glass of wine or jar of honey a sense of place — is well-trodden. But its seafood counterpart, merroir (from the French word “mer” for sea), has become the defining focus of Charleston restaurants like The Ordinary, Chubby Fish, and Stanhope’s new project The Quinte Oyster Bar.

"“Chefs are focusing not only on where the food comes from, but also the people that brought us the food.” — Kevin Mitchell, culinary historian and chef instructor at The Culinary Institute of Charleston"

The Holy City has a few major advantages when it comes to seafood. For one, it sits at the confluence of the South Atlantic and Mid-Atlantic fisheries. “We’re basically getting double the fun, double the species,” explains James London, executive chef and owner of Chubby Fish.

Salt marsh and freshwater wetland contribute to a unique ecosystem that yields a singular oyster, shrimp, or finfish. And as Kevin Mitchell, a historian and chef instructor at The Culinary Institute of Charleston, says, “Chefs are focusing not only on where the food comes from, but also the people that brought us the food.”

Chefs will indeed make their first calls of the day to local purveyors like Abundant Seafood. “The docks are close to downtown, so we have the best access to a great variety of seafood,” says Lata, who helped introduce the term merroir to town when he opened modern oyster hall The Ordinary in 2012.

All this adds up to an exciting seafood scene that simply couldn’t exist anywhere else in the country, or possibly the world.

Treating purveyors as partners

When Lata was a young chef in Atlanta, he would ride his motorcycle to farms throughout Georgia to meet local growers on his days off. “You get to know their story and what they’re trying to accomplish, then instead of them being a purveyor they become a partner,” he says.

This ethos drove Lata to open FIG in 2003 with partner Adam Nemirow. Over the next decade he cultivated relationships with seafood purveyors that would become the foundation of The Ordinary.

“We collected these incredible oyster folks, crabbers, and shrimpers,” says Lata. “Mark Marhefka [of Abundant Seafood] would call us directly from a satellite phone on the water and tell us what he was catching. I was like, this is something that’s very unique. We need to build another restaurant around seafood.”

Chef London, who grew up fishing in Charleston, tells a similar story. He worked in restaurants in New York City and San Francisco, but was lured back to his home city by the specialness of the seafood and purveyors. “Leading up to the opening [of Chubby Fish in 2018], I made a real big push to go down to the docks every day and shake hands with the fishermen and talk to them about what we were doing to really ingrain myself into the fishing scene,” he says.

Early on, London met Cindy Tarvin and her husband, Taylor, who first got into shrimping by way of their son, Vasa. They had adopted Vasa from Russia and were looking for a way to help him adjust to his new surroundings. “Turned out that Vasa was interested in fishing, and he started going out on [late shrimper] Wayne Magwood’s shrimp boat when he was 12, maybe even younger than that,” says Cindy.

"“When you come into Chubby Fish, you’re really getting a sense of place and time so that when you come in tonight, you’re going to have a completely different experience than what you had on Tuesday.” — James London, executive chef and owner, Chubby Fish"

When Vasa finished school, they bought him his own boat, and around 2011, when Magwood no longer needed surplus shrimp, the family began selling to restaurants, modeling their business after Marhefka, who shared their dock. Marhefka introduced the Tarvins to his growing network of chefs, and today they supply chemical and preservative-free shrimp to more than 50 restaurants in the city.

“Chefs, it’s almost like they play in musical restaurants,” jokes Cindy. “When the chef moves, they sometimes take their purveyors with them. And chefs find out from other chefs who happens to have shrimp.”

By all accounts, Tarvin shrimp is some of the best around, whether it’s served on ice with a cognac cocktail sauce at The Quinte or fried for a crispy shrimp roll at The Ordinary.

And if Tarvin shrimp isn’t available, London simply won’t serve shrimp that night, he says.

While he could maybe make more money by substituting for another shrimp, London wants to support purveyors that employ sustainable practices to avoid overfishing and reduce bycatch that can harm the ecosystem. He also just wants to serve the best catch that came out of the ocean that day.

“When you come into Chubby Fish, you’re really getting a sense of place and time so that when you come in tonight, you’re going to have a completely different experience than what you had on Tuesday,” says London. “And that’s because there was a completely different boat that came in, or there was a completely different catch that came in. That’s how we operate.”

<p>Courtesy of Chef James London</p> An oyster selection at Chubby Fish, including Port Royal Wilds and Steamboat Creeks from South Carolina

Courtesy of Chef James London

An oyster selection at Chubby Fish, including Port Royal Wilds and Steamboat Creeks from South Carolina

“Oysters are king”

Oysters have been an integral part of Charleston’s culture for more than 4,000 years, when historians believe Indigenous Americans used the shells for ceremonies and feasts. Today, they’re embedded in the city’s culinary traditions, whether eaten raw, cooked for an oyster roast, or mixed into an oyster perloo, a one-pot rice dish with roots in Gullah-Geechee cuisine from the descendants of enslaved West Africans.

While wild oysters are harvested from September to April, farmed oysters are enjoyed year-round in Charleston, thanks to modern sustainable farming practices.

“Oysters are king here,” says Mitchell. “[The marsh water] flavors the oyster and gives them that briny, really sharp brininess.”

At The Ordinary, Lata originally offered an oyster program with six oysters from the Eastern seaboard to showcase how different the same species (Eastern virginica) could taste based on merroir. But post-Covid, he shifted the focus entirely to Lowcountry oysters.

A guide to Charleston catch

Eastern/virginica oyster: This species of oyster can be found up and down the East Coast, but South Carolina oysters are particularly well-known for their brininess.

East Coast white shrimp: These shrimp are renowned for their sweetness and plump texture.

Triggerfish: This species “has a different flesh structure than other fish that makes it very silky and velvety on your palate and it stays very, very juicy,” says London. “It’s like a rush of beautiful salt and incredible freshness.”

Banded rudderfish: Lata compares this species to a “wild hamachi” or yellowtail.

Wreckfish: Stanhope throws this “meaty” fish on the grill at The Quinte since it can stand up to high heat.

Tilefish: This sweet, flaky fish is sometimes compared to lobster or crab.

“We immediately decided that we were going to just reduce that conversation slightly or change the conversation from, ‘Hey, isn’t this interesting? Look at all these different oysters” to, “Hey, isn’t Charleston interesting? These are the oysters that are found here,” he explains.

At Chubby Fish, servers and kitchen staff are all extensively trained on an “oyster bible” of about 75 different species so they can discuss them with guests, not unlike sommeliers — and it’s much more nuanced than “East versus West Coast” or “briny versus sweet.”

Lowcountry Cups, grown by the mouth of the ocean, may present as particularly salty, while Steamboat Creeks harvested in the salt marsh might have notes of pluff mud, a clay-like substance that imparts a complex, slightly earthy character.

While the differences between oyster tasting notes might bring to mind a bottle of wine, London notes that merroir may be even easier to grasp than terroir since there’s no “human intervention” in the form of sulfites or acids. In other words, there’s nothing for oysters to hide behind, especially if they’re served without cocktail sauce or other garnishes, as at Chubby Fish.

“You’re really getting what Mother Earth was doing to it, what the ocean was doing to it,” he says. “So you’re getting different water flow, temperature, different tidal energy, salinity, sunlight penetration, the mineral concentration in the water, the mineral makeup of the water, the amount of pluff mud that was in the water.”

One man’s “trash fish”

Charleston might be an oyster town, but it’s also a shrimp town, a finfish town, and really just a seafood town.

“[The term] merroir is typically only used with oysters, but I don’t think it should be,” says London. “The reason our fishery is so healthy here is because of the marsh that we have here. So that marsh supports plankton, that supports shrimp, that supports sea trout and black sea bass, and then that supports grouper and snapper, and it just continues on.”

When Lata opened FIG, most menus were dominated by popular fish species that were available year-round, like snapper and grouper, he recalls. But Lata was concerned less with what would sell, and more with the highest quality he could offer based on his relationships with purveyors like Marhefka.

One of his first big victories was triggerfish, which is now one of the most sought-after fish in town. “That was our first kind of aha moment,” he says. Triggerfish has an almost leathery skin, says London, and at Chubby Fish he’ll grill it skin-side down, then baste it in a green garlic butter so it simmers in its own juices and develops a deeply charred skin.

“I remember the same thing when Mark Marhefka started bringing rudderfish to us. We were like, what is this perfect species?” says Stanhope.

Beyond these local favorites, Charleston chefs have helped introduce species including porgy, amberjack, wahoo, and sheepshead to the city’s diners. Expanding offerings has become especially critical as catch limits are imposed on more popular species of fish. “We understand that Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate,” explains Lata. “We agree to pay a premium for the freshness, and we then take on the responsibility of introducing those species to our market.”

"“We do need to protect our oceans, but at the same time, we need to protect our fisheries and our shrimpers and those industries that have made Charleston. It’s those families that are reinvesting in this area.” — Jason Stanhope, chef and owner of The Quinte Oyster Bar and Lowland Charleston

Lata also credits Charleston diners for a willingness to expand their culinary horizons. “We have a savvy clientele that is demanding of unique experiences,” he says. And whether they know it or not, they’re getting a world-class education in Lowcountry seafood.

Whatever fish he’s working with, Stanhope tries to use everything from head to tail, a practice he picked up at FIG.  “It’s like, are you using the bones? Are you scraping the bones? Are you harvesting collars and cheeks and all those collage-rich delicacies around the head?” he says.

At The Quinte, he’ll turn fish bones into stock for soup, or grind the rib cage, cheeks, and heads and brine them in a salt solution before poaching them and flaking them into crispy baccala-like potato fritters.

“That’s where Lata and FIG taught me a lot about the different avenues of sustainability, and how yes, we do need to protect our oceans, but at the same time, we need to protect our fisheries and our shrimpers and those industries that have made Charleston. It’s those families that are reinvesting in this area.”

And the relationship between chef and purveyor continues to unlock new aspects of Charleston’s merroir. “To this day, I’m still receiving new species from our fishermen,” says London.

We can’t wait to see what Charleston’s chefs do with the next catch. 

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