Dining at Drago’s Seafood Restaurant on the Louisiana Oyster Trail
We were following the Louisiana Oyster Trail in the town of Metairie just outside New Orleans. Our first stop of the journey in the Jefferson Parish was at the door of Drago’s Seafood Restaurant. Oysters were on the menu, and Michael was eagerly looking forward to sampling the promised charbroiled oyster dish. Therese, not a fan of oysters herself, was hoping for, well, something else.
The parking lot was packed on a drizzly night – a good sign – and as soon as the armed guard swung open the door (these oysters must really be popular) we were greeted with the smell of garlic and the sound of sizzling goodness emanating from a massive open grill in front of us. (Therese eyed the sizzling oysters suspiciously, although the photo opp was great.)
Drago and Klara Cvitanovich opened Drago’s Seafood Restaurant in 1969, but it wasn’t until their son Tommy created what would become the signature dish of the restaurant, the charbroiled oyster, that the place (“Home of the Charbroiled Oyster”) was transformed into a must-dine destination along the Jefferson Parish’s Louisiana Oyster Trail. Currently there are 20 participating restaurants.
The centerpiece of the Metairie restaurant, the original Drago’s establishment, is the flaming grill. This place is seriously like a massive palace celebrating all things oyster. On one side, two men were busily shucking fresh Louisiana oysters, placing them 12 to a tray (At full speed, each can shuck a couple hundred in an hour). Each tray is then delivered to the grilling station and the chef then sizzles them on the half-shell over an open flame, ladling a mixture of garlic, butter and herbs over them as they cook. A sprinkling of Parmesan and Romano cheese tops off the dish as the dozen oysters are plated, and two French rolls are added. Plate after plate of the charbroiled oyster dish headed out into the restaurant as we stood enjoying the show.
It wasn’t long before we were seated in the crowded restaurant, which in multiple rooms can seat 500. This is not fine dining by any stretch of the imagination. The atmosphere and seating are more along the lines of what you would expect of a family-oriented restaurant – open, bright, clean with an emphasis on great service and good food, plenty of it, and less on décor of any sort.
We were joined at our table by none other than Tommy Cvitanovich himself. Yes, we were being hosted as media, but Tommy appearing at tables at his Metairie restaurant is nothing out of the ordinary. He spends most of his time at this restaurant of his four (a fifth coming in Baton Rouge by late 2019) and is very hands-on, checking on tables, sitting down with guests to chat (many are regulars), and personally attending to a birthday song here and there. He believes in community and offers, for example, an inexpensive prom menu that is a flat teen-ager-appropriate price, including tax, tip and beverage, thus also grooming a new generation of clientele. Smart guy!
As soon as we took our seats, the food began appearing, with Tommy orchestrating the delivery so we could taste all of his finest and newest. Of course, the first delivery was charbroiled oysters. Therese politely explained she had a “bad oyster experience” many years ago and isn’t a real fan but was willing to try. Tommy nodded, smiled, and said that was OK (we think he knew she’d change her mind).
To be honest, Michael was hoping for raw oysters on the half shell, but as Tommy explained, there was an oyster shortage due to opening of the Bonnet Carre Spillway because of so much recent rain. That spillway pours fresh water into the bayou and as a result, the water salinity drops, and oysters begin to die. The good news is Drago’s Seafood Restaurant serves so many oysters it is able to source directly from the fishermen. Mull this factoid: He said between this restaurant and the one in New Orleans at the Hilton Riverside, Drago’s serves 3 million oysters a year. No wonder the fishermen keep him top o’ mind, assuring a supply for this signature dish. Each plate comes with several pieces of French bread for dipping into the garlic butter sauce.
Even Therese was surprised how much she loved the flavor of Drago’s original charbroiled oyster dish. They are not slimy, salt or fishy like raw ones can be (plentiful garlic and butter on top doesn’t hurt). It did not take long for a dozen of these mouth-watering oysters to disappear – Michael lapped them up, and Therese did manage three in fact. (Want a recipe for charbroiled oysters? Check out ours here courtesy of Visit Jefferson Parish’s Louisiana Oyster Trail cookbook.)
Next up were the Alligator Tacos, consisting of blackened alligator tail meat, arugula, pico de gallo and Cajun aioli served in a soft shell. Can we say YUM! We both absolutely loved this dish!
More delectable plates appeared on our table, including the new-on-the-menu Dr. Pepper Gator Rice Bowl (yes, this is a dish made with alligator meat sautéed in a Louisiana-Style Dr. Pepper – the soda, you read that right — sauce and served over rice) and the Shrimp ‘N’ Grits with Tasso (jumbo gulf shrimp and tasso smoked meat in a spicy butter cream sauce served with grits).
Of course, there was plenty of deep-fried goodies too – we were in Louisiana, for goodness sake – including alligator, which we were coming to like quite a bit, and Fleur De Lis Shrimp – fried shrimp with peanuts and a spicy red pepper aioli. Tommy does not shy away from a little spicy zip in dishes. Tommy sells traditional Southern fare but also seeks to “drago-ize” something, thus the peanuts and roasted red pepper on this one.
We literally could not eat another bite, but Tommy wouldn’t hear of us stopping now. Not until we had sampled the Drago’s Seafood Restaurant’s new dessert, the I-Scream Fireball. What is an I-Scream Fireball you ask? Get this: a thick slice of ice cream pie speckled with chocolate chunks and a very thick graham cracker crust. Sprinkle spicy caramelized peanuts over it, then pour a generous shot of Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey over the top. That little spicy after-tingle is, he calls and we heartily agree, “magic in your mouth.” Oh, my was it ever good!