Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Clouds over St. Claude

Photo by Christopher Waterman
 We went to lunch at the St. Roch Market on St. Claude, while the skies were gathering ominously for a storm and the rain just beginning to fall.

The St. Roch Market dates from 1875, when it was a public, open-air market. It was almost torn down in the 1930s, but instead was renovated with WPA money. By the time it was damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it was pretty run-down, but still people went there for fresh shrimp and oysters, boiled crawfish, gumbo, and cowan turtles.

FEMA money and city funds were used to renovate the old building, and it opened this spring, with eleven vendors offering prepared foods and beverages in an open hall setting.

The hall is beautiful; all painted white, with tall Corinthian columns bisecting the space. The vendors are arrayed on the two sides, with seating for diners in the middle. Vendors are all small businesses, food purveyors and independent chefs on their way up, and lean heavily toward the foodie persuasion. There's a charcutiere, a coffee roaster, a bakery, a creperie, a juice vendor, and a cocktail bar. There's also a stall offering Creole cuisine, a seafood raw bar, and a Korean-Creole fusion kitchen.

We chose to sit at the generous curved counter at the Curious Oyster Company. The menu offered a raw bar with several varieties of local and West Coast oysters, as well as crab claws, pickled shrimp, and a smoked fish platter. We ordered a dozen local oysters on the half shell. The person minding the shop was Ellis, who shucked them with expertise.

These were gulf oysters, and huge, to my eye. Their flavor was mild, not very salty. The oysters from St. Bernard Parish were more flavorful than the ones from Grand Isle, but they were pretty similar. You could really tell the difference between the two by sight - the St. Bernard oysters were darker in color.

These shrimp are damn good!
We also ordered the pickled shrimp. When I tasted one, I was in heaven. Plump, pink shrimp, swimming in a sweet-sour vinegar dressing with sliced red onions and fresh herbs, they were addictive. They were served with crusty toasts of country bread that was perfect for sopping up the sauce. It was so good we actually brought the dregs of it home in a little plastic container.

Murder Bay oysters
Ellis suggested we try the oysters from Murder Bay in Alabama - we felt that a great name like Murder Bay was worth trying out. These were smaller, more to my liking. They had a grassy, almost herbal taste. I'd go with these next time, and forget the others.

We also had some blue crab claws - these treats are becoming one of my favorite go-to delights. I like that you can use the little claw as a handle, and then strip the delicious flesh off the central cartilage blade with your teeth.

With our oysters we had a glass of dry riesling from the nearby cocktail bar. At the St. Roch Market, you can wander from vendor to vendor to choose whatever you like, and carry it all to a table or even carry it to another vendor's counter.

This is all fine and good, but not everyone is pleased with the St. Roch Market. The old market, run-down as it was, served the tastes and pocketbooks of the neighborhood residents. There have been complaints that the market's fare and pricing is geared toward tourists and gentrified newcomers, instead of offering affordable, nutritious groceries and prepared food in the food desert of the Ninth Ward.

And they have a point. The clientele at the St. Roch Market were uniformly white and appeared to be relatively affluent. The prices here are closer to what I'm used to paying in Los Angeles, and that's tough stuff for a town where the median income is about $36,000.

And yet - the market offers opportunities to young entrepreneurs and provides jobs to local residents. Plus, a vibrant and thriving enterprise is better for a healthy neighborhood than a shuttered ruin, and a historical landmark has been preserved.

It's a tricky issue, gentrification.

What's your take?


Ellen Bloom said...

I am so enjoying your stories from New Orleans, Glennis! Keep 'em comin'! I know a lot about gentrification. I live in Mid-City Los Angeles. There is good and bad. I'd give anything for some fresh oysters right about now!

cookingwithgas said...

I've always wanted to go there....looks like fabulous food.