I had been fantasizing about it for months.
Last night, we went to Durham to celebrate my Sister’s graduation from design school, and what better way to celebrate than with a raw seafood tower. How could something be so perfect? While we waited for our Mom to arrive, we ordered a round of cocktails. I love the tiki drinks at Saint James and I wanted something beachy. I went for their take on the piña colada. It was served over pebbled ice with a fresh mint sprig, nice and rum forward like I like it, with house-made cream of coconut. I somehow forgot to capture a photo of it. Whoops. Guess you’ll just have to go order one. It was perfect.
Saint James serves raw towers in 3 sizes, depending on the size of your party (or appetite). We went with the mid-sized tower, The Nautilus, suggested for 3-4 people. It’s precursor was a few dishes of accoutrement consisting of cocktail sauce, a simple mignonette, drawn butter, and a thick and creamy hollandaise sauce. Raw towers, which are always served chilled, are a dramatic and extravagant way to present these gorgeous shellfish and crustaceans. And that’s all the more reason to love them. The Nautilus is studded with raw oysters, raw clams, perfectly steamed mussels, a perfectly cooked lobster, shrimp, and 3 types of ceviches–with lemon and hot sauce, of course. These shellfish were mostly from Carteret County and were briny, sweet, and tasted like the Sound I grew up swimming in. There’s really nothing better.
Let me know if you find the origin of the raw tower, or the first place in history it was created, but my mind is taking me to the Mediterranean coastline of the French Riviera on this one. I once visited Nice, France in the late 90s. Nice sits on the pebbly shores of the Baie des Anges, on the French Riviera. I wish I had stories to tell of decadent seafood towers that I enjoyed with cold champagne in Nice, but instead, I was a far less food cultured 16 year old, traveling with my family with a freshly fractured ankle, newly outfitted with a pile of plates and screws, two weeks in to our European tour. The pain from the altitude on planes, bumpy rides in my wheelchair along cobblestone streets, hopping platform gaps into trains on crutches, and a fall down the stairs of a Stuttgart train station had rendered me grumpy as hell. So, here my Mother and I sat for lunch, in this gorgeous town at this posh yet cozy café with the Côte d’Azur as our backdrop. Two weeks into a European trip can start to get a little rough on any American kid from the South (in the way of cuisine). I would have loved a shrimp burger, even a cheeseburger. Anything that tasted like home to my little, under-cultured palate would have been just the comfort I needed. I ordered a plate of seafood–and to my disappointment, it was basically a baby raw tower. Teenage Sarah wished they would have just fried everything on the plate. haha. I reluctantly picked through it, homesick and dazed from my pain meds. Modern day Sarah would have ordered a bottle of champagne, and upped the size of the tower. I’ll have to go back there someday to do just that.
Speaking of champagne…
We were trying to figure out what wine to order after our cocktails. Saint James has done well with providing wines that go well with seafood for everyone to choose from no matter which way your palate leans. Being the adventurous imbibers that we are, we chose a blanco from the Canary Islands of Spain–which are really closer to Morocco than they are to Spain. Who even knew they grew vines on the Canary Islands? Our server promised a unique wine with salinity and minerality–which is perfect for seafood. These vines grow on the northern side of Tenerife, right along the oceanside. As a result, this wine takes on the intense characteristics of the sea and make it perfect for enjoying with chilled & raw seafood. Check out the color of the bottle–really unique. White wines are usually served in green bottles, or clear. Cobalt blue for some Rieslings. This glass was amber colored. The wine was beautiful and highly recommended.
We moved on to dinner, though we were nearing fullness. I ordered a roasted beet salad with strawberries, goat cheese mousse, passionfruit, and candied pecans. It was absolutely divine. I had to get the ‘unagi’ dish again. Check out my February post of Saint James to learn more about this dish, the Japanese technique, and why it reminds me of home. This time, it featured Cobia. It was every bit as delicious as I remembered it, and just as beautiful. Laura and Zeke both ordered a fried oyster salad with romaine. That salad was amazing. I should have taken a picture of it. It has the decadence of a seafood platter with the oysters, and all of the crisp hydration of a chilled salad that you need on a hot Memorial Day weekend. The dressing was similar to a caesar dressing with roasted garlic puréed in. It was so perfect. I am getting that salad next time I go. Our Mom also ordered a fried oyster “calabash style” plate–served with fries and cole slaw. Their tartar sauce is maybe the best tartar sauce I have ever had. It breaks my fried-seafood-loving heart when I learn that a seafood restaurant serves some store bought brand of tartar that uses corn syrup as the main ingredient…like El’s Drive-In does these days… but we won’t focus on that. We’ll instead focus on how Saint James has taken the high road and made fresh tartar sauce–which only has about 5 or 6 ingredients anyway, and the flavor of homemade tartar is far superior to anything that comes in a plastic squeeze pack. Everything that we ordered at Saint James was absolutely perfect, and is the next best thing to having my Dad open raw oysters and clams for me on the cut-banks of the Bogue Sound.
For dessert, we had the baba au rhum “donut”– the name never attracts me to this one because I am not that into donuts, but if you see what it looks like, it’s clear that it is just a creative version of a luscious banana pudding. A fluffy homemade, cake-y donut is sliced in half, bottom half doused with rum, loaded with fresh banana pudding and barely brûléed banana slices, then topped with the other half of the donut, which is brushed with honey, and dusted with confectioners sugar. Absolutely out of this world. You can’t not order key lime pie after a seafood dinner, so we also enjoyed this one which is made with a saltine cracker crust vs graham cracker. So good.
This place is epic. I still haven’t had the Lobster Newburg. It’s on my list for next time… If you come here, you simply must order a raw tower. It is now your mission. And if you are the type that likes complex white wines, try it with the Tajinaste.