For those in Ottawa’s restaurant industry, the annual Whalesbone Oysterfest is the always a great way to launch into the summer party season.
A no-nonsense affair, the Whalesbone team cram the gravel parking lot to the side of their Sustainable Oyster & Fish Supply storefront with people, tents, plastic tables and chairs and food stations — offering fish burgers, pulled pork and, of course, oysters — 6,000 of the bivalve mollusks were served this year.
The event, now in its fourth year, features live music and two oyster-shucking contests (one for chefs and one for pros; the distinction is a fine line) to keep the crowds entertained. And oh yeah: A couple of drink stations to keep us all hydrated on the sunniest day of the weekend. (Two local breweries — Beau’s and Kichesippi — were brought in, along with Sailor Jerry’s Spiced Rum and wines from the Oregon-based Sokol Blosser winery.)
Oddly, despite the packed parking lot on the corner of Kent and Arlington, the lineups don’t even come close to rivaling Bluesfest ….
Oysterfest is mainly a gathering of the city’s culinary scene, where everyone seemingly knows everyone else, making it feel more like a house party than a summer festival shindig. (Chefs from Beckta, 18, Domus, Farb’s, Murray Street, Petit Bill’s and, naturally, Whalesbone were all there.) The fact that it falls on a relaxed Sunday afternoon — from noon to 11 p.m. — probably helps. That being said, I met a few people who stumbled in from the street after seeing how popular the small space was, willingly shelling out the $25 for a ticket. (It comes with food! A selection of oysters, or a sandwich — walleye, halibut, smoked salmon or pulled pork.)
The highlight of Oysterfest is the aforementioned oyster-shucking contest, which takes places in heats, with some strict rules and blaring music that revs up both the shuckers and the cheering/jeering crowd. Both those competing in the Chef’s Cup (local restaurateurs who serve standard fare) and the Pro Cup (those whose menus often feature oysters) are given 14 oysters and must present 12 for judging. Success is dictated by speed and cleanliness of cut: There can’t be any shell, sand or blood (shucking ain’t easy), nor can the meat be pierced. The oyster must also be cleanly cut from the shell. Any fault means a three-second penalty against your overall time.
The overall winner of the event — from the pro category — was an outsider: Mike Langely of Rodney’s Oyster House in Toronto. (Their website‘s feature photo section shows Langley with the Oyster Cup.) The Chef’s Cup went to Mike Poliquin, of Metropolitan Brasserie. (Check out the seafood platters offered by the downtown restaurant during Hill Hour each weekday, from 4-7 p.m.)
Unlike your standard party, Oysterfest peaks in the early evening, around 7 or 8 p.m., just as the sun is setting. But those who stuck it out were rewarded with the smooth, eclectic music of Souljazz Orchestra, one of three local bands to take to the small stage with big sounds. (The Devillaires and Greenfield Main played in the afternoon.)
If you didn’t get a chance to check out Oysterfest this year, I’d strongly encourage you to stop by the Whalesbone at 430 Bank for an oyster or two. Their service is infused with the same great upbeat and naturally jovial attitude that makes this annual event such a good time. And the re-introduced Sundae Bar isn’t too bad either …
What summer events are you looking forward to this year? Drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us about them!