Cooking

For Shuck's Sake

Tips and tricks for building a raw bar at home
DIY Raw Seafood Bar
Photos: Rachel Vanni/Tasting Table

New Year's Eve can be a serious letdown: You get stuck paying too much for a prix fixe dinner, you get left in the cold because you can't hail a cab, or maybe you're of the camp who falls asleep before the ball drops because you know better. This year, it's time to take matters into your own hands—literally—and go out with a bang by assembling your own bar. A raw bar, that is.

Instead of building expectations that will never be met, try building a shellfish tower that will top everything else on the table. We're talking oysters, clams, lobster and accoutrements your guests will remember for years to come, even if the rest of the night is hazy.

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David LeFevre, chef and owner of Manhattan Beach's Fishing with Dynamite, where L.A. chefs go for seafood, is here to offer all the tips and tricks you need to pull this off. LeFevre, who spent three years manning seafood at Charlie Trotter's and makes a mean fish taco, knows his way around a raw bar. Order Fishing with Dynamite's largest shellfish tower, the Mother Sucker, and you'll see why.

Here are LeFevre's tips for raising the, ahem, bar.

Prep Talk

How to buy, clean and prepare shellfish in advance

When you're buying shellfish, "it should smell like the ocean, not like the beach," LeFevre says. Use a trustworthy fishmonger and beware of clams and mussels whose shells don't close when you tap them, a sign that they're already dead and shouldn't be eaten.

LeFevre suggests cleaning oyster and clamshells in shaved ice, stirring them rapidly to dislodge any sand or clay hanging on the shells. Then spray them down. Scrub and pull out any beards on mussels and devein your shrimp, remembering to keep the shells on, LeFevre says, because they provide more flavor and are easier to handle.

You can also steam mussels in the morning and chill for later, and cook crab and lobster in advance. The most important part is keeping everything cold until the last minute, LeFevre warns. No one wants room-temperature oysters.

"The only thing you shouldn't do in advance is shuck oysters and clams, because they're literally alive until you shuck them," he explains. Get an extra oyster knife and grab a friend to help you shuck as people file into your party. Think of it as live entertainment.

Set the Stage

Essential tips for the ultimate bar setup

"A shellfish tower should be luxurious," LeFevre says, "and luxury is about not having to work too hard." That means cracking shells and removing meat ahead of time, so that guests don't have to get their hands dirty—literally. You can cut lobster tails lengthwise to remove the meat and return it to the shell for presentation. The same goes for crab. "Cut all the way up the length of the crab leg on both sides, so guests can easily pull off the meat," LeFevre advises.

Once you've cracked the shells and loosened the meat, it's time to plate. You'll need crushed ice and plenty of it. Pro tip: LeFevre suggests placing a paper towel or wad of newspaper in the bottom of the bowl, beneath the mound of ice, so that when the ice melts, it doesn't slosh around.

Always make sure to have a discard bowl, or a few, ready for shells. Also lay out your lemon wedges, sauces, small forks and little spoons. Moist towelettes aren't a bad idea either.

Get Saucy

Recipes to take things to the next level

Instead of serving a traditional mignonette, mix things up this year. LeFevre dresses up traditional mignonette with crushed peppercorns (see the recipe), and serves it with clams and oysters. For heavier items—like crab, shrimp and lobster—he makes a yuzu mayo (see the recipe). "Red shellfish tend to hold well with a rémoulade," he says. Finally, he serves a soy- and citrus-laced ponzu sauce (see the recipe) that works with just about anything. Grated raw daikon mixed into the sauce sticks nicely to whatever you're dipping.

LeFevre also likes a fresh and spicy pico de gallo with oysters. "It's a nice surprise and simple." Or try pairing Scotch and oysters, like they do in Scotland. The salt in the oysters makes the Scotch taste sweeter, LeFevre explains.

Wash It All Down

Drink pairings that keep it classy

Even if you're not using alcohol in your mignonettes, make sure you have the right booze on hand to drink. Champagne is the obvious choice, and LeFevre calls it the perfect pairing for oysters. "It's luxurious and celebratory." Following the rule that "what grows together, goes together," he also recommends Muscadet. "That wine is actually produced right at the end of the Loire river, which is a huge oyster-producing area, too. It's a one-dimensional, crisp, clean white." Whether you go bubbly or not, make sure to stock up, because the only thing worse than a New Year's Eve party without enough food is a NYE party without enough booze.

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