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Empire Oyster popup raises the raw bar in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG

Kevin Joseph stands behind the counter wearing farmer's overalls, his 1967 Chevy Sportvan 108 Deluxe "Shuck Truck" pulled up outside.

At least among folks who won't think it's pretentious, he calls himself a "mermmelier," a sommelier for oysters. He's in the business of edutainment, explaining the flavor profiles and growing conditions of the up to nine kinds of oysters he's offering; explaining the importance of recycling oyster shells to create reefs and complex ecosystems; explaining how oysters aren't just carbon neutral, they're carbon negative.

And all the while he's shucking.

How cool is St. Petersburg? Cool enough to draw Joseph, 46, impresario of New York's Empire Oyster, a high-profile oyster producer, wholesaler and event company. Local developer Jon Daou has persuaded him to set up an avant-garde popup oyster bar four nights a week at hip little Intermezzo Coffee & Cocktails on Central Avenue.

The first week in March he sold 600 oysters, the second week it went up to 1,000 and this past weekend, Joseph zipped through 1,400 of the bivalves. All via word of mouth.

Brian Zucker, owner and writer of St. Pete Rising, an urban development blog, has visited the popup every week. On this visit, he works his way through grilled oysters, a "New York-style" lobster roll and a plate of peel-and-eat Key West pink shrimp tinged with Old Bay.

"I think it's incredible," he says. "How many cities can say they have a popup oyster bar inside a craft cocktail lounge?"

And here's the thing: Before Zucker visited the Empire popup, he'd never eaten an oyster.

Joseph persuaded Zucker to try them because he convinced him he had the best oysters in town, with exotic accoutrements and toppings. Imagine a molecular gastronomy garnish of spheres of gin with mint suspended at their centers — when the beads meet the raw oyster flesh, the mint appears to dance.

"And they go well with the cocktails — they're both artisan, bespoke, craft, whatever word you want to use," Zucker says.

For Intermezzo owner Jarrett Sabatini, 23, the Empire popup has shown surprising synergy with his coffee and cocktail concept. A recent marketing graduate of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, he opened Intermezzo in September as a popup after landlord Daou gave him space for three months without strings. Daou introduced Sabatini to Joseph, who was visiting Florida for Miami Oyster Week.

"People seem to have embraced the popup," Sabatini says. "There's nothing else like that here. I was skeptical at first. Coffee, cocktails and oysters — when you say it like that, it sounds weird."

But oyster bars in all forms are hot and have been for years. So have more ambitious oyster programs at regular restaurants.

Oyster aquaculture is on the rise in many regions. For instance, Chesapeake Bay oyster production grew by more than 800 percent between 2006 and 2012. On the consumer side, oysters fit into diners' search for foods with authentic "terroir," that are rooted in a particular place — it's an extension of the farm-to-table movement. And for the restaurateur, oysters are a profitable protein that requires little prep, cooking and plating.

Joseph grew up in a seafood restaurant family in Montauk, East Hampton, but his oyster epiphany came while watching a TED talk on oyster restoration in New York Harbor.

"Why aren't we recycling oyster shells in restaurants?" he thought. "And then the words 'New York Oyster Week' came into my head."

That was in 2010. He planned the event, which has become an annual three-week hedonistic extravaganza featuring dozens of bivalve-based tastings and parties. But among all the shucking and slurping are strong messages about sustainability, eating lower on the food chain and preserving ecosystems. He has overseen New York's oyster week for the past six years and says that since the first one, oysters and oyster bars have proliferated.

While Joseph is not serving Florida's Apalachicola Eastern oysters, he says he has reverence for the Apalachicola oystermen's way of life.

Apalachicola oysters have been imperiled in recent years. Florida and Georgia have been embroiled in a long-standing legal battle over water rights, Florida claiming Georgia's water use to the north has adversely impacted estuary salinity, and thus oyster spawning. In February, Georgia scored a major legal victory when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed that the state's water use may not be directly responsible for the collapse of the Apalachicola oyster industry.

"Politically, you hear all this banter about creating jobs," Joseph says. "But what about not losing jobs and protecting the way of life of oystermen? They're doing what they've done for generations — there's honor in that. I want consumers to respect the integrity of what food producers are doing, whether that's terrestrial or aquatic."

He just wondered if Floridians, specifically St. Petersburg locals, were ready for Empire, popups or even a high-end oyster bar like this.

"I didn't know if locals would appreciate the delicacy of these superpremium oysters," he says. "And they clearly do. St. Pete is at the verge of tipping. Locals have been starving for good food concepts."

In fact, enthusiasm has run so high, Joseph and crew are talking about making the oyster popup permanent.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

If you go

The Empire Oyster popups run from 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays at Intermezzo Coffee & Cocktails, 1111 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. Raw oysters are $2 and grilled are $4. On April 20, Empire hosts a Lobstafari event, which Joseph describes as a "punky reggae lobster bake."

Empire Oyster popup raises the raw bar in St. Petersburg 03/22/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 22, 2017 9:37pm]
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