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Digging For Steamers August 28, 2010

If you grew up on the east coast, summers were probably spent at the shore–like Fire Island, The Hamptons, Long Beach Island, or Cape Cod.  Chances are, eating steamers at a waterfront seafood shack holds a special place in your heart, reminding you of a simpler time frolicking in the waves, building sand castles and eating Italian ices.

But as grown-ups living the daily grind of New York City, and craving that nostalgic time of beachy bliss in say, Martha’s Vineyard,… well, you’re in luck!   A bunch of smart restaurateurs and steamer loving chefs decided to bring Maine to Manhattan, and steamers are no longer a summer-only trip out of town.  These well-loved but funny looking clams are popping up on menus at fish houses all over the city.

Steamers are soft-shelled clams also known as long necks, fat bellies, piss clams, and Ipswich.  They live off the shore of the Atlantic from Nova Scotia down to North Carolina, but they’re most popular in New England.   Ask any chef how they prepare their steamers and most will say the same thing… simply steamed in a little water.  That’s it.  They’re not like mussels or hard shell clams where garlic, cream, tomato, pork or wine is added.  Steamers are naturally sweet with a subtle ocean flavor.  They should be eaten pure and unadulterated.  Because they live in beds of sand and mud, they need to be “purged” of their sandy insides before cooking.  There are a few tricks out there, but generally, they’re soaked on salt water for hours and eventually the clam will relax and spit out the sand from their protruding siphon.  That’s where steamers get their nickname “piss clams”.

If you’re new to steamers, you just might look at the bucket in front of you, filled with odd-looking clams and think “what did I just get myself into?”  Rest assured, here’s a how-to guide to steamer satisfaction:

  1. Carefully peel open the soft and brittle shell, which is partly open due to the overhanging siphon or “neck”.
  2. Take hold of the siphon and slowly peel the entire clam off the shell, and then shuck the inedible gritty black membrane that’s stretched over the siphon.
  3. Dunk the entire clam in the hot clam broth to clean off any sand that might remain. This broth is created by the clams when they’re steamed open.
  4. The best part! dip the clam in hot melted butter.  Let it run down your arm and get messy, or dab the buttery clam on your plate.  Eat the entire clam – the soft belly, neck and all!
  5. When your bucket is empty, try drinking a little of the clam broth. Any sand has sunk to the bottom of the bowl.  This is a delicious way to end the steamer experience.  Don’t be afraid.  This what the pros do.

Here’s where to get steamers in the city:

Known as the NYC “Fish Shack Pioneer,” Rebecca Charles opened Pearl Oyster Bar in 1997, which is now double the size due to its huge popularity.  A strict first-come-first-serve policy warrants a hungry crowd on Cornelia Street nightly.  Pearl is known for their famous lobster roll with buttery bun and shoestring fries.  Other Pearl classics include fried oysters with homemade tarter sauce and daily fish specials written on the blackboard.  The casual and cozy space has a white marble dining bar, which is more accessible for chatting with Rebecca while slurping your steamers.  “It’s a skill.  You have to go through the ritual of eating steamers”, says Rebecca, who grew up eating them in Maine, and refers to the gritty membrane that needs to be removed as “the dirty sock”.  Pearl Oyster Bar gets their steamers from Long Island and Maine, and serves them all year long.  They purge the clams in a few cups of cornmeal to get the clams to spit out the sand, which they say does the trick.  Often they come across visitors who need instructions, but the staff will get a live clam from the kitchen to show customers what they look like before cooking them.   “A lot of people don’t know what to do with them,” says Rebecca.  “Once someone actually sent them back to the kitchen because they were sandy.  He ate the dirty sock.”

Small bucket = $12.00 (about 12 clams), Large bucket = $22.00 (about 20 clams)

Pearl Oyster Bar, 18 Cornelia Street 212-691-8211

Pearl Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

“I have a deep nostalgic connection to steamers, more so than any other shell fish” says Executive Chef, Laurence Edelman of Mermaid Oyster Bar.  This laid back white washed long narrow space is sibling to The Mermaid Inns (East Village and Upper West Side). The New England spot plays a rockin’ soundtrack perfect for a night out with friends eating Lobster Fra Diavolo or Fried Oyster Po’ Boys with pico de gallo and remoulade.   Try one of their signature cocktails like the Mermaid Mary – picture a bloody mary, then add old bay and stout beer!

Mermaid Oyster Bar serves fresh local steamers daily, year round.  Laurence says, “They come from the Great South Bay in Long Island.  They’re purged in the morning and at the restaurant in the afternoon.”  Order them with their signature Old Bay fries and you won’t leave disappointed.   Mermaid Oyster Bar also has an extensive selection of oysters from the East and the West coasts.  For fun, check out their “oyster university” link on their website to learn about their 16 varieties.

Small Steamers = $12.00

Mermaid Oyster Bar, 79 MacDougal Street New York, NY 10012 212-260-0100

Mermaid Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

Pearl Oyster Bar partner, Mary Redding, ventured on her own in 2000 to open Mary’s Fish Camp in the West Village, and in 2005 added Brooklyn Fish Camp to her southern-style fish shack dynasty.  Both locations share the same shack-by-the-sea menu offering three to four catch-of-the-day whole fishes grilled with herbs or fried, but it’s the lobster roll that draws the crowd to both locations. Mary’s can have a 45-minute wait for table, so if you’re looking for some elbowroom and breathing space, try Brooklyn Fish Camp’s outdoor garden.

“Every summer my family would drive up from Miami, and we would camp in my relatives backyard in Cooperstown, NY (living the life of the rich and famous from early on!).  I have no idea how or where my relatives would get pounds and pounds of live steamers but they were delicious.  They would fire up huge pots in their backyard and serve them on picnic tables.  That is when I first had and loved steamers.”

Both restaurants get in about 30 lbs of Canadian steamers daily.  After they’re purged, 15 lbs are served simply steamed with broth and butter, and the remaining 15 lbs are hand shucked and served as Fried Clams or Fried Clam Roll with Fish Camp Tartar Sauce served with celery root slaw.

Check out Mary’s quick instructional video for eating steamers at

Small Steamers  =  $14.00

Mary’s Fish Camp, 64 Charles Street (at the Corner of 4th Street), New York, NY 10014 646.486.2185
Brooklyn Fish Camp, 162 Fifth Avenue (Park Slope) Brooklyn, NY 11217   718.783.3264

Mary's Fish Camp on Urbanspoon

Chesapeake inspired Choptank, named after the Choptank River in Maryland, is the newest seafood shack on the scene.  The restaurant opened January 2010 in the former Bar Q space on Bleeker Street.  The décor is kitschy yet cool with old postcards on the walls and burlap nets covering the light fixtures. This classy sea shack takes reservations and has a beautiful outdoor garden dining space. Using Old Bay seasoning liberally, serving authentic Maryland jumbo lump crab cakes and fried chicken with black pepper honey and collard greens…this is southern comfort with a nostalgic twist. Chef Mathew Schaefer grew up in Minnesota but was always a “fish kid” since he spent his summers in Sweden. The Gold Coast Steamers with melted butter are served all year long.  “They’re purged in sea water tanks for 72 hours, and they’re almost 100% clean,” says Matthew; whose purveyor handpicks the steamers so they’re “not too small, not too big.”  To wash down the steamers, Choptank carries an interesting draught beer selection like Maryland’s Flying Dog Snake Dog India Pale Ale.

Steamers = $14.00

Choptank, 308 Bleeker Street New York, NY 10014 212-675-2009 www.choptanknyc.comChoptank on Urbanspoon

Ed’s Lobster Bar offers a unique spin on New England seafood and carries all the typical seafood shack favorites. Chef and owner, Ed McFarland is the former Sous Chef of Pearl Oyster Bar and opened Ed’s Lobster Bar in 2007, and offers lobster in every way imaginable. The small casual space has a long 29-seat white marble dining which runs the length of the narrow restaurant. There are a dozen tables in the back, but sitting at the bar is so much more fun. Watch the oyster shucking show, or the making of a blueberry gin gimlet (made with blueberry infused Tanquerey). Talk with your neighbors and ask how they like their lobster pot pie?   Just like the food at Ed’s Lobster Bar, the atmosphere is clean, unpretentious and charming. Get there on the early side to avoid waiting for seats, but no matter what…it’s worth it.

“Steamers are served all year long, both steamed and fried and the trick is to not overcook them,” says Ed.  “I serve them because they are delicious and sweet. They’re a perfect item to have on my menu; it just fits the concept.”   Ed’s friendly staff is trained to help those ordering steamers for the first time.  “My staff will explain what they are and how to eat them.  If someone’s eating them improperly, we’ll explain how to clean and eat them, which is very important.”

Large Bucket = $20.00

Ed’s Lobster Bar, 222 Lafayette Street  (between Broome & Spring) New York, NY 10012 212-343-3236

Ed's Lobster Bar on Urbanspoon

BLT Fish Shack is the casual sidekick to the elegant BLT Fish located upstairs.  This large relaxed fish shack seats 45 and includes old-fashioned wooden booths.  The nautical décor fits the New England style fish shack menu that includes snack bar picks like fish and chips and clam chowder, but not often do we find periwinkles and whelks! Remember, this is a Laurent Tourondel restaurant, so the Peel N’ Eat Shrimp come with cloth napkins.  The bar offers thickly cut salt & vinegar potato chips to go with the cold local beers available, and parents will appreciate the kid-friendly options like fish sticks and ice cream.

Chef Emilie Bousquet grew up in Massachusetts and ate steamers on a regular basis.  Her mother taught her how to eat steamers by dabbing the broth directly on the newspaper covering the table.  BLT Fish Shack honors the chef’s roots by getting their steamers brought in from New England once a week.  “I find the steamers from New England to be sweeter because they’re smaller,” says Emilie.  BLT Fish Shack has steamers on Thursday nights only, which has become a very popular night filled with regulars who like to satisfy their steamer fix.

Steamer Entree with French Fries = $22.00

BLT Fish Shack, 21 W. 17th Street New York, NY 10011 212-691-8888
BLT Fish on Urbanspoon
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