By Joan Wilder
Photo by Jerry WardIt’s late October and I’m sitting in Drago’s Seafood Restaurant and Oyster Bar in New Orleans on the first night of a five-day family reunion at my brother- and sister-in-law’s house in the French Quarter.
Having relatives in great places is a sweet thing, and I've had about a half--dozen trips to the city. Because the house [left] has room for everybody and my father-in-law is such a good cook, we tend to stay in for dinner. But Drago’s is a family favorite and we have to eat here, too.
This is where the now popular New Orleans charbroiled oyster originated in the early ‘90s, which is pretty much all we order: platters and platters of the buttery, garlicky, grilled bivalves.
“We’ll have another dozen,” my husband’s brother, Jamie, says to our server.
Chances are, even if you don’t like oysters, you’d like these. They taste like the world’s best garlic bread with a little something more. If you were blindfolded, I don’t think you’d know they were oysters, yet die-hard oyster lovers adore them.
We have so many great oysters on the South Shore, but I’ve never had or seen them grilled the way owner Tommy Cvitanovich does it at Drago’s.
The restaurant was founded in 1969 in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans, by Tommy’s parents, Drago and “Miss Klara” Cvitanovich, who are still very much a part of its operations. Some 38 years later, the family opened a second Drago’s on the Mississippi River, steps from the edge of the Quarter. The 360-seat restaurant is inside the Hilton, which was totally renovated after Hurricane Katrina, or "the storm," as locals call it.
As soon as you walk into either Drago’s, you see dozens of oysters on the half shell on an enormous grill. Chefs literally throw handfuls of a Parmesan, Romano, and parsley topping over the butter-sauce-filled oysters, causing the fire to flare up and char them.
Tommy came up with the idea of grilling oysters in the shell one bright day at the restaurant in the early ‘90s, after sending out an order of redfish, covered in garlic, butter, and herbs.
“We cooked the redfish with skin and scales that acted like a shell or extra plate that held the juices and basting in,” said Tommy. “I thought ‘there’s no better liquid that oyster juice,’ and put two and two together and won the lottery. It’s one of the coolest things; they’re on a lot of menus in town now. I pinch myself.”
In 2009, Drago’s sold more than 3 million oysters, a dozen at a time. (The current price is $17 a dozen.)
“We knew it was special right away, but there was a high learning curve for mass-producing them,” said Tommy.
Drago’s is still getting all its oysters from the Gulf and Tommy wants people to know that endless tests have found all the seafood leaving the Gulf to be free of hydrocarbons and oil. This echoes the findings of a report released from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Food and Drug Administration last week.
Which isn’t to say everything’s good in the Gulf since the BP oil spill. According to Tommy, a large percentage of the oyster beds in the Mississippi Delta region are dead now, due to the influx of fresh water that was diverted into the Gulf to keep oil off the coast.
Tommy was very interested when I told him about Island Creek Oyster’s farming operation in Duxbury. He’s familiar with the general area because he buys some of his lobsters in Bourne.
Five weeks after Katrina, when Jamie and his wife, Mary, finally returned home to New Orleans, I kept asking them if this place or that place had reopened. It was the only way I could try to gauge the devastation. Hardly any place was open, and those that were, were mostly giving away what food they had.
Drago’s was first among them.
“I was in Baton Rouge and came back … a few days after the storm hit… but Freddie our manager stayed in the restaurant during and after the storm,” said Tommy. “We were serving first responders and employees who lived in our neighborhood the day after Katrina.”
In the eight weeks after the storm, Drago’s gave away almost 80,000 meals, while busily repairing the restaurant. For this generosity, the Washington D.C.-based National Restaurant Association honored Drago’s with its Restaurant Neighbor Award – the first to be given to a restaurant in New Orleans.
In the five years since Katrina, it seems that Drago’s business has about doubled, what with the new restaurant. They don’t take reservations at either location and we waited an hour in the warm night to get our table for 12.
A good thing is a good thing, and it’s good to see a family make good – whether that family is mine, the Cvitanovich’s, or the family of people that is the city of New Orleans.
My sister-in-law Lisette in Pennsylvania has tried many methods for replicating Drago's oysters. I suspect that the reason she can't reproduce them exactly is that Drago's grill is much hotter than anything you can find for home use. But Lisette has settled on this recipe for a dozen oysters; double, triple, or quadruple it for more!
Lisette Dell’Apa’s Drago-inspired grilled oysters
1 stick melted unsalted butter
1 pinch kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 pinch cayenne pepper
1 pinch white pepper
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon minced Italian parsley
Blend everything together.
1 1/4 cups grated Romano and Pecorino cheeses, mixed
1/3 cup breadcrumbs
Mix cheese and crumbs together
1. Shuck a dozen oysters
2. Heat a charcoal or gas grill until very, very hot.
3. Place oysters on the hottest part of the grill and let them cook in their own juices for three to four minutes or until they start to bubble and the edges ruffle.
4. Top each with a generous portion of the cheese topping (enough to fill the shell).
5. Spritz with water a few times to get the flames to jump
6. When the topping starts to bubble and brown, which could be as long as five to seven minutes from the time you started cooking them, ladle a little butter sauce on each oyster (using a long ladle and gloves).
7. Cook for another minute or so.
8. Transfer oysters to a serving platter, drizzle with more butter sauce, and serve with hunks of crusty bread, lemon wedges, and hot sauce.