Tuesday, October 2, 2012 at 2:52 p.m.
Oysterfest experiences some growing pains
They came, they saw, they slurped, and often, they stood in line. Meritage hosted its second-annual Oysterfest with sold-out crowds. The restaurant was all hands on deck, with everyone taking a shucking station, including chef-owner Russell Klein and the celebrity chefs who came to compete in the shucking contest. Still, some guests were unsatisfied.
With temperatures in the mid-70s, it was a beautiful day to be outside in St. Peter Street, which was shut down outside the restaurant for the event. Meritage continued to sell tickets at the door.
Lines moved much more slowly than they did last year. It felt like Disneyland, long lines for everything, and only a moment of gratification before it was time to move to another line.
The beer and wine lines were the shortest. Summit Brewery brought a special stout brewed from oyster shells for the occasion. When sipped just after a freshly slurped oyster it was salty, accentuating the briny, seaside freshness of the oysters.
While people waited for their oysters and food, the lively Como Ave Jug Band
entertained the crowd as local notable chefs took turns at the shucking contest, hosted by Stephanie March of Mpls/St. Paul
magazine and the Weekly Dish
radio show. Last year's champion, Vincent Francoual (of Vincent -- A Restaurant), was knocked out in the first round for not fully detaching his oyster from the shell. Lenny Russo's stand-in shucker (the chef-owner of Heartland was nursing a chest cold), Alan Bergo, advanced to face Jack Riebel of Butcher and the Boar.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman arrived for the finale of the shucking contest. Chef Riebel came out on top. Mayor Coleman then took the time to shuck a couple of oysters.
Mayor Chris Coleman, oyster fan
Despite having brought in extra shuckers from nearby culinary schools and the farms involved, the number of guests were overwhelming. The line for hot food items, which included burgers, fries, po' boys, and wings, took about 40 minutes to navigate. Most attendees seemed to take the lines in stride, but some left unsatisfied.
Not pictured: actual food
Yesterday those frustrated took to the internet. A Chowhound.com
thread was started by SarahInMinneapolis by saying, "Like last year, we bought the VIP tickets. Average wait time per oyster line was 40 minutes. Longest wait time was 53 minutes. Heard people walking out and asking for their money back. Felt like twice the people as last year."
Today we chatted with Russell Klein who spoke at length about how he and his staff tried to balance great expectations with human limitation. Klein said, "We try to operate our business as a good neighbor. We want to do good for St. Paul." He also said that the oyster farmers were impressed with our Midwest bivalve love. In a matter of hours more oysters were shucked here than were at another recent three day festival. While that is an impressive feat, Klein understands customers frustrations.
Customers who would like to contact the chef or air their concerns can email the restaurant. As to whether there will be a third annual Oysterfest, that remains to be seen. We can only hope so.