The Dish: Walrus and Carpenter Oyster Farm Dinner
A four-course feast and in-the-water raw bar were served on a sandbar in Charlestown's Ninigret Pond.
From a distance, it looks as if the dinner guests are walking on the surface of Ninigret Pond. A family-style table with a white tablecloth is set up, and a wooden plank for seating tops bright orange, upside down oyster crates. Thirty-six guests are marooned on a sandbar by choice, and one of the best chefs in Rhode Island is serving a four-course New England feast. The wine keeps pouring, even though the coolers and bar might float away. Nicks on Broadway chef Derek Wagner is ankle-deep in water plating cake and peaches, blueberries, walnuts and whipped cream. Although his kitchen is flooded, he hasn’t a care in the world besides pleasing his nature-loving dinner party guests.
The feast is part of the Walrus and Carpenter Oyster Farm six-dinner sold out series held this summer on Ningret Pond in Charlestown, where oyster farmer Jules Opton-Himmel and a small crew farm six acres of two to three million oysters. The dinner tickets went live on the website on June 15 at 9 a.m. and sold out in less than ten minutes for $185 a ticket. It was the hottest dinner reservation in the state, organized with help from Eat Drink RI, and it feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But many of the guests have been back every season since it started three years ago.
Guests are picked up by an oyster farming boat (a converted party boat) to embark on a tour of the waters with an oyster farmer. Once we arrive at the actual farm, we climb off the boat and into the water, where farmer Isaac discusses oyster survival rate, threats to the species (suffocating seaweed and the boring sponge) and how important it is to get harvested oysters to restaurants that same day. He holds up a handful of oysters. Oyster farming is like throwing $10,000 dollars (the cost of the seed) into the water and hoping for the best, he says.
After the presentation, we sample the shellfish and sip Champagne at an in-the-water raw bar up to our knees in the deep. I wore short shorts to stay dry, but apparently my shorts were not short enough. We eat as many oysters as they can shuck topped with a few squeezes of mignonette, then we traipse across the pond to a sandy path that leads to a secret section of East Beach. We take in the view straight across to Block Island, thirteen miles out, then spread out on the sand to get to know our fellow dining companions. Some come prepared with swimsuits, and peel off T-shirts and cargo shorts to jump into the ocean’s swell. I kick back and appreciate this time to relax.
Once the chef and kitchen staff are ready for the group, we head back to the pond and wade our way to the sandbar where our dining table awaits in the distance. When we reach the shore, the first stop is the bar, where four different varieties of wines from Bottles Fine Wine are poured. I choose a French rose to soak up every bit of this beautiful day, sip by sip. The dinner party is sit-where-you-wish-style, and I find a spot amongst a welcoming group from Jamestown, Rehoboth and Little Compton, a woman from Providence, a New York feature documentary filmmaker (who just happened to win a first-place award at the Rhode Island International Film Festival), and a couple from Seekonk. Conversation flows freely and it’s nice to meet fellow diners who appreciate Rhode Island’s food scene as much as I do.
We enjoy courses of corn chowder made with Rhode Island mushrooms and corn, a salad with feta and bruschetta, local poached fluke with mussels, lentils, sweet corn and cherry tomatoes and cake with peaches, cream, honey, blueberries and roasted walnuts.
Toward the final courses, we notice the sandbar is shrinking, until half of the table guests are up to their ankles in water. Part of the reason the tide is so high is because storms have recently passed through the area. Horseshoe crabs swim along the surface of the pond like extraterrestrial party crashers. A group of curious kayakers skims by our gathering. We probably would have stayed until the water reached up to our chins (or at least until the wine was gone), but oh yea, we have to take the boat to get back to our cars. And so with that final mouthful of dessert and a last swig of wine, we bid farewell to new friends and thank the chef, farmers and staff. Never before have we been kicked off a table by the tide, but it is part of the reason this day on the oyster farm is so spectacular.
This version of the story was updated from an earlier version which stated the farm cultivates six million oysters. It farms two to three million per year, and the cost of seed is $10,000. The dinner series is a Walrus and Carpenter event, and Eat Drink RI helped organize it.