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Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Matunuck Oyster Bar serves up maybe the best class ever to URI students

Students savor sustainable bounty from sea during adventurous tasting dinner

By  Dave Lavallee

URI students David Fiedorczyk and Julianna Cleary enjoy seafood delicacies at Matunuck Oyster Bar as part of the fall Honors Colloquium, “Sustaining our Shores.” URI photo by Nora Lewis

Seafood is scary to many kids (and adults) in the United States, but when prepared well, it is both nutritious and delicious. Also, the ocean’s bounty from fishing is much more diverse than most people realize, according to the organizers of this fall’s recently concluded University of Rhode Island Honors Colloquium, “Sustaining Our Shores.” 

To use the sea in a more sustainable way and improve our health, people need to be more adventurous and open-minded about the type and taste of marine life they consume, say colloquium coordinators J.P. Walsh and Andrew Davies. In short they say, we should eat everything we catch from the ocean and farm. 

URI students, faculty, administrators and staff enjoy the seven-course
dining experience. URI photo by Nora Lewis
As part of the colloquium, students were invited to a seafood tasting at Matunuck Oyster Bar and Grill. That November night, sophomore pharmacy student David Fiedorczyk said his favorite seafood was fried calamari (squid).

But that was before the Easton, Massachusetts, resident and 15 of his fellow students were introduced to delectable, sustainable and healthy seafood offerings at the renowned Rhode Island restaurant owned and operated by URI alumnus Perry Raso.

After tasting a chilled seafood salad, which consisted of wood-grilled local squid, steamed mussel, baby fennel, ruby red grapefruit, dill and toasted spice vinaigrette, Fiedorczyk had this to say: “The squid tastes healthier than fried calamari and I could taste the squid’s flavor more. This is a great alternative.”

David Fiedorczyk enjoys an oyster at Matunuck Oyster Bar.
URI photo by Nora Lewis
Helping people sample and enjoy local seafood choices that are better for the environment and for them was one of the key goals of what was termed the “Adventure in Seafood” tasting dinner. 

The nine-lecture colloquium and associated honors course focused on three key areas: coasts in crisis, the future of seafood, and plastics and marine pollution. 

The honored guest for the tasting dinner, who delivered the public lecture following the dinner, was chef and author Barton Seaver. Recordings of his and other colloquium presentations can be freely viewed at:

Judging by the reactions of the students and other URI guests, colloquium coordinators Walsh, University of Rhode Island professor of oceanography and director of the Coastal Resources Center in the Graduate School of Oceanography, and Davies, associate professor of biological sciences, the seven-course event was a resounding success.

“We not only wanted the students to experience great, locally caught, farmed and prepared seafood, but we also wanted students to be inspired by Perry’s career. We want them to know that the world can be your oyster, especially with a degree from URI,” Walsh said.

“The power of food to entertain is not in question, but as we saw tonight, food can also be a powerful educational tool to engage people in discussion about our oceans,” said Davies between courses.

Raso, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from URI, also owns Matunuck Oyster Farm. He is an advocate for locally grown seafood and produce, and his restaurant has earned nationwide recognition for its “farm to table, pond to plate” mission. To further compliment his focus on providing local, sustainable food, he started a vegetable farm to provide ingredients for the restaurant’s dishes. 

 Julianna Cleary, a sophomore biological sciences major from East Northport, Long Island, said seafood and seafood restaurants abound in her area, but “I never had seafood prepared like this … Acadian redfish, I never had that before!”

Cleary was referring to the dish, Acadian Redfish en Papillote, which was served with fingerling potatoes, Swiss chard, sauteed oyster mushrooms and miso butter.

She also said she normally hates oysters, but the restaurant’s crispy oyster with herb aioli and mushroom piccalilli, changed her mind. “It was delicious!”

Sophia Szeneitas, a senior biological sciences major from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, tasted her first oyster during the meal.

“This is a really cool experience, not only because we get to enjoy some wonderful foods, but also because it draws attention to sustaining our ecosystems,” Szeneitas said.

Azmari Rehmangul Ahmad, a junior biological sciences major, sampled a few appetizers–Matunuck Oysters on the half shell with cucumber passion fruit gazpacho and salmon roe and periwinkles with coconut ginger curry.

“There is a major difference between fried seafood and something like this,” said Ahmad, who was born in Houston. “Everything was great, but my favorite was the crispy oyster.”

He said giving students such an experience and exposing them to wonderful speakers gives them a sense of the new and developing career opportunities.

Ahmad, who is following a pre-med track, has worked at a hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One of my concerns was that many of the COVID patients were victims of their own diets,” Ahmad said, after he learned of the potential benefits of seafood from the honors class. 

Abby Volz, a sophomore psychology major from Media, Pennsylvania, said the food was very good, very unusual.

“I was skeptical about this, but now I am much more open to different food choices,” Volz said. “It is also very important to take care of the environment. Outdoor experiences are a key part of mental health. Being outside always makes me feel better. I love the ocean.”

Fellow psychology major Shaylin Daley said she had never had oysters or fluke.

“They were both very good,” said the senior from Warwick. “I love trying new things. I also wanted to take this colloquium class. Because I live in Rhode Island, I am so attached to the ocean.”

“This was a way to celebrate and enjoy fish and other marine life that are underused and shine a light on Perry Raso, a local seafood superstar and champion,” Walsh said. “The challenge is how can we be more sustainable and satisfy the consumer? In the U.S., a lot of seafood is imported, but the best way to be sustainable is to consume the variety of seafood that is caught close to home.”

Species like periwinkles, fluke, sea snails and scup are all underused, but now “we can link one of the oldest fisheries, Narragansett Bay, to smart seafood sustainability,” Walsh said. This was reinforced by Davies who said, “as we look toward food security in the future, our oceans are going to be a major source of food, but it needs to be sustainable and the work that Perry is doing at Matunuck is inspirational.”

Raso enjoyed himself throughout that day, when he and chef and author Seaver spoke with the Honors Colloquium class, then later sat down with Seaver, URI President Marc Parlange and several students for dinner at his restaurant and finally at Edwards Hall when Seaver gave that day’s colloquium address. 

“One thing that struck me during the class and dinner was that solutions to some of our biggest environmental problems are going to be discovered by students like these,” Raso said. “Barton and I came out of college and we were in a position to have an impact, but these students have the ability to address big issues like single-use plastics, food waste and others. I couldn’t help but think that solutions to these are not necessarily going to be arrived at by people like Barton and me.”