Mindful of oysters on 'forgotten coast'

Fred Millender stands at the door of his oyster house in Eastpoint, Fla. Millender sells all types of seafood, but the Apalachicola Bay oysters are the big attraction.
Fred Millender stands at the door of his oyster house in Eastpoint, Fla. Millender sells all types of seafood, but the Apalachicola Bay oysters are the big attraction. (PHIL COALE / Associated Press)
Posted: February 11, 2013

APALACHICOLA, Fla. - For oyster lovers, Apalachicola is Florida's pearl.

There are many reasons to visit Franklin County, the collection of tiny Panhandle communities often called the "forgotten coast" because of its non-touristy, Old Florida vibe - the uncrowded, pet-friendly beaches on St. George Island, the St. James Bay Golf Resort in Carrabelle, charter fishing in Alligator Point, and bird-watching in Eastpoint.

For many people, though, there's nothing as satisfying as Apalachicola's world-famous oysters.

Most oysters are farmed, but Apalachicola, or "Apalach," as the locals call it, is home to miles of wild oyster beds that supply 90 percent of Florida's oysters. The Apalachicola River and Bay converge with the Gulf of Mexico to form the ideal oyster incubator.

At Up the Creek Raw Bar, which overlooks Scipio Creek and the Apalachicola River, a small crowd gathers around a chalk board to check out the specials.

A delicate, pan-fried flounder cake served atop a mountain of house-made gnocchi drizzled with a light white wine cream sauce is a big hit. Chef Brett Gormley, an Apalachicola native, is known for his culinary creativity, and he has a special talent for marrying fresh, local seafood with globally inspired flavors.

But first and foremost, this is a raw bar, and Gormley can shuck an oyster faster than you can say, "Pass the hot sauce." That's not something he learned in culinary school. Like many locals, he's been doing it since he was a child.

When it comes to raw oysters, Gormley says less is more.

"I treat them delicately and add as little to them as possible," Gormley says. "You want to enhance the oyster's actual flavor, not cover it with other flavors."

Gormley knows that not every oyster lover is a purist, content to eat them raw on the half shell, so he's happy to prepare customer favorites, such as oysters Moscow - raw oysters topped with horseradish-infused sour cream and a sprinkle of sustainable American caviar.

Gormley also prides himself on his oysters mignonette. He makes a mean mignonette sauce, putting his own spin on this French classic by adding fiery habanero peppers fresh from his garden instead of the milder white or black ground pepper.

The Blue Parrot Oceanfront Cafe is one of the few restaurants on St. George Island. In fact, it's one of the few businesses, and it's as close as anything comes to being a "happening place" on this 28-mile barrier island that is be reached by crossing a 4-mile bridge that spans St. George Sound.

City dwellers come to the island to decelerate, because nothing more stressful than losing their favorite flip-flops while chasing their pooch in the waves happens here.

Rows of pastel-colored beach houses with names like "Amazing Sunrise" and the tongue-in-cheek "All Daddy's Money" are hideaways for those who want nothing to come between them and endless stretches of exquisitely white sand.

There's not much here, and that's the attraction. No fast-food restaurants, so for a quick but delicious meal, sun worshippers head to the Blue Parrot for a basket of crunchy, deep-fried conch fritters, peel-and-eat shrimp, or a plate of raw oysters.

Oyster enthusiasts can be assured they will get the very best the bay has to offer. That's because owner Steven Rash also owns the Water Street Seafood Co. in Apalachicola, and only the cream of the oyster crop makes it to the Blue Parrot's umbrella-shaded tables.

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