Matunuck Oyster Bar: The Hidden Pearl
By Amiee White Beazley
150 yards. That’s the distance between the oyster beds and the restaurant, Matunuck Oyster Bar, in East Matunuck, Rhode Island, where the fresh Rhode Island oysters are served. The twentysomething behind the counter shucking grew up on Potter Pond where the oysters grow; the owner just five minutes away. This is a true taste of Rhode Island and chances are you’ve never had a fresher oyster in your life.
“I love when people says that,” says owner Perry Raso. “I do think people like the idea of oysters coming from a place that they know. We give them a fresh product and a consistent product every day.”
Raso began harvesting wild shellfish at age 13 – quahogs and little necks – but like so many former shellfisherman in this state struggling to make a living due to low market price of wild shellfish, he made the transition to “farmer” when the technology and demand for farm-raised oysters moved him to the saltwater ponds scattered along Rhode Island’s southern shore. He planted his first oyster seeds in 2002.
Every year since then Raso has planted approximately 20 million oyster seeds in his seven-acre aquaculture lease on Potter Pond. In his bed now, there are approximately three to 15 million oysters or more growing. He will sell some of the seeds to other farmers as well as some of the oysters when they are grown. From seed to harvest an oyster takes about two or three years to mature and make it onto the plates at the Matunuck Oyster Bar, area farmers’ markets, or other restaurants around the state such as the five star Ocean House in Watch Hill and Castle Hill Inn in Newport. They are definitively fresh, brought up out of the water and into the restaurant twice daily, usually by the same young men and women who are cracking them open for hours during the dinner rush.
Chef Jacques Pépin and his daughter Claudine, who last year moved to the Ocean State, says her father’s favorite oysters come from the Matunuck Oyster Bar. “He asks for them every time I visit him,” she says.
Tonight the boys are shucking Raso’s Matunuck Oysters from Potter Pond; East Beach Blonds and Ninigret Oysters from Charlestown Pond and Watch Hill Oysters from Winnapaug Pond – all within five miles or less. Technically, they are all the same oyster, crassostrea virginica – the native oyster species of the Atlantic Coast – but depending on how they are raised, modeled and the environmental factor around them, each farm’s oyster has its own character, nuances in flavor and appearance.
Raso started out focusing solely on the oyster farming business, the restaurant was an afterthought, says Raso. At his location on an inlet between two estuaries, there were a handful of restaurants that once occupied the space, none of them successful. What Raso really wanted was the commercial dock, the only one on Potter Pond, to help ensure the longevity of his business.
“I thought I’d give a restaurant a try and wait for it to fail, then I’d move in and live there,” he says, “but I’m still waiting.” Turning approximately 1,000 covers daily during the summer, the restaurant is a great success by any standard. The menu of prepared by Chefs Wayne Bush and Jeff Cruff focuses on mostly coastal standards – fish and chips, scallops, lobster rolls, chowders – made that much better because of the quality ingredients used. Fresh fish and shellfish, and vegetables all farmed by Raso himself in his new growing operation along the banks of the same pond where his oysters are grown.
The Matunuck Oyster Bar’s appeal is something you can’t quite put your finger on: is it the water view, the broken clam shells underfoot, the perfected coastal cuisine, the unpretentious vibe? Whatever the X factor is, the Matunuck Oyster Bar is emblematic of true Rhode Island – an unmistakable pride in what is grown and what can become in this small state. It’s a restaurant focused on what is simple and good, a hidden pearl along the shore.
Matunuck Oyster Bar, 629 Succotash Road, South Kingstown, RI 02879
Amiee White Beazley is the editor of edibleASPEN, founding contributor of AspenPeak magazine and food columnist for the Aspen Daily News. Her food and travel writing has been featured in Yankee Magazine, Coastal Living, 5280, Aspen Magazine and The Providence Journal among others. A mother of two, her first children’s book,Snowmastodon! Snow Day Adventure was published by People’s Press in 2011. www.awbeazley.com