How to Build a Raw Bar
Impress your guests and feed them well by setting up a raw bar for your next celebration. Shuck your own oysters on the half shell and serve with homemade mignonette along with shrimp cocktail, crab legs, crudo, sashimi, and other raw bar specialties for elegant at-home entertaining. All you need are the right tools and a little advanced planning.
What's in a Raw Bar?
At its most basic, a raw bar offers a selection of chilled, exquisitely fresh seafood that's prepared very simply, so its sweet, briny flavors can shine through. For most raw bars, the star attraction is raw, freshly shucked oysters on the half shell, presented on platters of crushed ice along with lemon wedges, cocktail sauce, and mignonette that guests can choose from to dress up each oyster as they eat it. Raw bars may also offer other raw seafood including clams on the half shell, crudo, sashimi, sea urchin (uni), poke, and ceviche. However, the term "raw bar" is a slight misnomer, as there are plenty of options for cooked seafood as well. A well turned-out raw bar also might offer shrimp cocktails, and chilled crab legs or lobster tails, too.
The Essentials You Need to Set Up Your Raw Bar
For a classic raw bar presentation, you will need platters or wide, shallow bowls with sides that are at least an inch high so they can hold crushed ice. If you want to go all out, invest in a three tiered platter for a truly show-stopping centerpiece.
Our next raw bar essential: crushed ice, and plenty of it. It's vital to keep raw seafood chilled so it stays as fresh as possible. A pristine bed of crushed ice makes for a simple but beautiful presentation. If your refrigerator has a built-in ice maker that produces crushed ice, plan to start working a day or two ahead of time in order to fill several lidded containers or gallon-size zip-top bags with crushed ice. Keep them in the freezer until you're ready so you won't have to worry about running out of ice the day of the party.
If you don't have a readily available source of crushed ice in your kitchen, crush ice by putting cubes into a clean, lint-free kitchen towel or pillowcase and whacking it with a rolling pin or a meat mallet. Again, work ahead of time and store the ice in containers or bags so you can grab it quickly while you're setting up for the party. You could also ask your seafood market if you can buy crushed ice from them. They likely have a giant ice maker in back and should be able to accommodate your request, especially if you call ahead.
Tip: Prevent the crushed ice (and the precious seafood) from sliding around and spilling by placing a paper towel in the bottom of each platter or bowl before filling.
Set bowls on the table or around the room for guests to discard their oyster, clam, shrimp, crab, and lobster shells and their spent lemon wedges.
Every raw bar needs the holy trinity of lemon wedges, cocktail sauce, and mignonette. Mignonette is a mixture of vinegar (usually red wine or champagne), minced shallots, and cracked black pepper. This is not a time for bargain store-brand vinegar, splurge on the good stuff. In this simple preparation, the quality will really shine through.
In addition to the basics, have fun with some slightly splashier condiments like freshly made mayonnaise flavored with lemon, saffron, or fresh herbs; tartar sauce or remoulade; ponzu; nuoc cham; teriyaki sauce; or even a fresh fruit granita.
Utensils and Tools
Depending on exactly which seafood assortment you choose for your raw bar, you'll need a few specialized serving eating utensils.
- Cocktail Forks. Offer your guests dainty little cocktail forks if you're entertaining a group who you think would like to keep their fingers clean. You can go with disposable bamboo forks if you're not quite ready to commit.
- Oyster Knife. If you or your guests will be shucking oysters, an oyster knife is a must-have tool. The flat, flared blade on a blunt, easy-to-grip handle is the basic tool for opening raw oysters. A regular kitchen knife isn't up to the job (those oyster shells are tough and will probably break the blade!) so the oyster knife is a necessary investment. You can pick one up for less than $10.
- Towel or Shucking Glove. You'll also want to pick up a towel and shucking glove. While any towel will do, a thick, absorbent kitchen towel is the oyster shucker's best friend. It helps you to keep a tight hold on the oyster, protects your hands, and absorbs excess moisture. A shucking glove is optional, but especially if you're new to oyster shucking, one of these grippy, cut-proof gloves will help you avoid spoiling the party with a trip to the emergency room.
- Crackers. No, we don't mean saltines. If you're serving crab or lobster that's still in the shell, supply a few pairs of shell crackers to help your guests get to the sweet prizes inside.