Matthew Morello is the first to admit that his interest in oysters borders on obsession. He makes an 80-mile round trip at least twice a week—and sometimes at the drop of a hat—from his restaurant, Elm Square Oyster Co. in Andover, to Taylor Lobster in Kittery, Maine, to make sure he gets dibs on new, unique bivalves from small producers along the coast. He’s developing his own line of barrel-aged hot sauces because he thinks Tabasco is an insult to a pristine oyster. And he even traded in his sedan for an SUV—one with a special plastic liner to make packing his ride with 1,200 cold, dripping jewels at a time easier.
Tom Robinson, who manages the oyster program at Taylor, says there are few chefs as dedicated as Morello. “I deal with about 200 different restaurants,” including Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York City and Pearl in Washington, D.C., he says, “and there are about five guys like Matt. And nobody drives up here…. Normally people leave messages on my machine and we ship them out. Matt likes to look around.”
Morello’s dedication makes the offerings at Elm Square Oyster Co. unique in many ways. In an industry where it’s acceptable for an oyster to be out of the water for 10 days before reaching a consumer’s plate, Morello’s guests sometimes enjoy the bivalves just a few hours after they are pulled from the ocean, and usually within 48 hours.
“I want the ones that are just out of the water,” Morello says. “When you have pristine oysters, they are plump and flavorful. It’s like fruit.”
Customers also benefit from Morello’s insatiable curiosity and total respect for the small farmers crafting each oyster to reflect its terroir, just like a fine wine. This often drives him to pick up more varieties than he intended—a shopping list of four can quickly turn to six or eight or nine, especially when favorites like Nonesuch, from Scarborough, Maine, and Glidden Point, from the Damariscotta River in Maine, are available.
“The production is so small and you don’t know when they will be back in…you just don’t want anyone else to have them,” Morello says. As a result, his 73-seat restaurant, which grows to about 100 in the summer, usually has eight or more different oysters on the menu—an unusual variety even for an oyster bar.
“It’s fun to have one from Rhode Island to compare with one from Massachusetts and two or three from Maine,” Morello says. “It’s like setting up a flight of beer or wine.”
Word of an oyster Morello hasn’t tried before will get him into his car fast, whether it’s the Wawenauk, a big, briny beauty with a deep cup and a sweet finish, or a new favorite, Fat Dog from Great Bay, New Hampshire.
“The flavor profile is unique,” Morello says of Fat Dog. “No one thinks of New Hampshire as having any coast with the ability to grow something this delicious.”
Taylor Lobster is the only place on the East Coast to offer Fat Dog, and once Morello tried them, he was hooked—so hooked that he spent a day out on the farm with owner Jay Baker to see how the oysters were grown.
“It’s really hard not to fall in love with these producers,” Morello says. “You can taste the difference between an oyster coming from a 20-mile oyster bed farmed by a snow plow and someplace like Fat Dog.”
Indeed, Baker is very much like a small artisanal farmer, using rakes and checking saline levels and the soil at the bottom of the bay for just the right spot to nurture his crop, which takes three to four years to grow from tiny seedlings to retail-ready.
“We spend a lot of time with our oysters,” Baker acknowledges, noting that he probably touches each one 30 to 40 times over its brief lifespan.
Gathering these details feeds into Morello’s overall success with moving thousands of oysters a week. “I try to tell customers the size, where they are harvested, and something personal about the farm” for each offering on the menu, he says. And his carefully trained staff is just as passionate about sharing the stories with customers —and making sure everyone has a great experience, whether they are a first-time slurper or a seasoned pro.
While Morello’s interest in oysters has been growing for a while, just over a year ago it became all-consuming. That’s when he decided, virtually overnight, to change the concept of his French-inflected Brasserie 28 to Elm Square, featuring modern American cuisine sourced locally, with a focus, of course, on oysters.
While prepping the new concept, Morello quickly found a kindred spirit in Robinson, who has patiently built up Taylor’s oyster business to one that is recognized around the country, nurturing dozens of small farmers who have been popping up as oysters have taken off. Robinson and Morello even trade gossip about the farms.
“If something interesting happens at one of the farms, I’ll text Matt,” says Robinson with a laugh. “Most chefs would be like, ‘Why are you telling me this?’”
Most chefs don’t take offense to the ubiquitous Tabasco sauce either, but in Morello’s world, it only makes sense to top a small-production oyster with a small-production condiment developed specifically for bivalves. The first one in Morello’s new Compliment line, currently available exclusively at Elm Square, is “Ghost Ride,” a barrel-aged hot sauce made with ghost peppers—among the spiciest on Earth. He hopes to introduce three more hot sauces and two mignonettes to keep pace with the unique bivalves on his continually growing and changing list.
“I enjoy the chase of it,” Morello says. “If you’re going to offer one [oyster], you might as well have four. If you’re going to have four, you might as well offer 10.”
Elm Square Oyster Co.
2 Elm Sq., Andover