A Connoisseur's Guide to Oysters
If you don't knowyour Fanny Bays from your Hood Canals, Skookums or Tatamagouches, well, shucks. You're in luck. Where to get your bivalves on the half shell.
The Best of the Bivalves
If The World Is Your Oyster...
A Connoisseur’s Guide
By M.H. Reed
Photography by Michael Polito
There’s a sadness that comes with the turning of the New Year, the tinsel lank and the candles spent. The excitement and festivities that began with Halloween for some, Thanksgiving for others, have gone the way of candy-cane gift wrap and tin horns. But oyster-lovers rejoice at this time of year, as the season of this bivalve is now in high gear, remaining so until April.
There are, however, rumors about raw oysters; they have a “reputation.” While their notoriety for boosting sexual prowess may be apocryphal, there’s no doubt that these slippery little mouthfuls come loaded with vitamins and minerals, factors that could very well improve health and energy in general. Casanova reportedly considered them a dandy source of energy, downing five to 10 dozen while sharing a bath with his lady of the moment. And just because he liked the salty-sweet taste, Brillat-Savarin, the renowned gastronome who has been immortalized by a cake named in his honor, took 24 for breakfast every day.
Although oysters are today almost all carefully farmed or cultivated, one myth that nevertheless prevails is that they can be fatal if ingested during those months without an “r.” The FDA does warn that any bacterium would be “most prevalent during the warm months of the year.” But eating a raw one on a hot July day probably won’t send anyone to the Emergency Room. Still there is a culinary reason to avoid eating oysters in non-“r” months: From May to August, oysters spend much of their time reproducing, and, as spawning saps their texture and taste, they become puny and bland—not particularly palatable. Consequently, in summer, some dining spots prepare them with seasoned breading, which conceals their flat taste. That’s fine—if breaded oysters are what you want.
But aficionados know to wait for those “r” months before slurping up raw oysters. That’s when the spawning season ends, and the bivalve recovers its luscious meatiness and distinctive flavor. Committed indulgers know that, while a few kinds are available all year, most need the cold to come into their delectable own.
To taste their best, oysters on the half shell must be fresh and cold. Still, occasionally, a little heat can be a good thing. “Even for people who love oysters raw, when you add heat to them until they are just warmed, it changes their complexity and texture making them firm,” says Peter Kelly, owner and chef of Xaviar’s at Piermont, Freelance Café & Wine Bar also in Piermont, NY (See review on page 79), and Restaurant X & Bully Boy Bar in Congers, NY.
Consumers should look for places that specialize; namely, those offering a half dozen brands and perhaps more in high season. High turnover (requiring frequent replenishment of the stock) and freshness usually go hand in hand. Oysters should also be shucked upon order and stored and served deliciously cold on ice. Flavor is determined by a hatchery’s environment—food, water, salinity, and temperature—which can change from year to year. It’s quite possible that, say, a Malpeque or a Skookum won’t always be as sweet or metallic as remembered. But that difference is what keeps the oyster exciting, and customers in a long-term relationship with a particular bivalve will rarely be bored.
Most restaurants offer cut lemon, red “cocktail sauce” and a wine vinegar and minced shallot sauce called mignonette with a platter of icy colds. The devotee might take them neat, at most with drops of lemon, savoring the nuances of the meat. Sometimes a chef will add an extra touch. Anthony Goncalves at Trotters in White Plains likes to “take oysters over the top” with special condiments. “We make a salsa with tomatoes, scallions and jalapeno and serve a sea-urchin dressing with soy, and ginger and uni to bring the oysters to the next level,” he says. Chef Rafael Palomino of Pacifico in Port Chester is equally inventive. “We create a coulis out of tomato foam,” he says, “or serve oysters with a mango and papaya salsita. It’s very colorful.”
Depending upon the oyster, these creative touches (and do give them a try) are fancy dress, bestowing another persona on the familiar that will be different, but not better. Beginners might become acquainted with the range of flavors by ordering two or three each of the available selection. Most oysters in our area come from the Atlantic or Pacific coasts; European (Belon) and Japanese (Kumamoto) varieties are farmed here as well. And because not every diner will know the players without a scorecard, some restaurants provide a list that describes the provenance and general characteristics of each bivalve. It’s fun to taste an oyster and decide whether you agree.
Other places train wait staff to identify. Still others, like The Fish Cellar in Mount Kisco and Restaurant X & Bully Boy Bar, have a knowledgeable shucker, as well as trained servers, who will take you through a short, pleasant course in oyster tasting.
Finally, the shape of the shell can be a clue to origin. Most oysters with somewhat flat, elongated shells are Easterns or Atlantics. They’re briny with just a touch of sweetness and have relatively firm texture; in other words, they deliver plenty of moxie, like Blue Points, Malpeques, Fishers Islands and Buzzards Bays. Deeper ruffled shells mark the Pacific or Western oysters, which have creamier bodies, softer flavor and are usually much less briny, like Fanny Bays, Dabob Bays, Hood Canals, and Hog Islands.
As with most rules, there are a few exceptions. These bivalves are usually named for their place of birth, and most of the names have a certain charm; they imply romance and adventure: Snowy Creek, Nootka, Cortes Island, Kachemak Bay, Moonstone, Tatamagouche and Pickle Point, to name a very few from a cast of perhaps hundreds. New oysters and names are in constant development but, clearly, not all will be stocked at one time or even over the course of one year. Most restaurants serious about oysters change the rotation with every season.
Here, in alphabetical order, is a list of restaurants that keep a dependable supply of these bivalves, with representations from both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Harvest depends upon when a variety is ready, so expect to see new brands as the season progresses. However, Kumamotos and Malpeques are common to all these spots.
Caffe Regatta, 133 Wolfs Lane, Pelham (914) 738-8686. The raw bar here has an ample selection for those wanting to compare types. Owner Anthony Labriola recommends that novices start with smaller oysters. “The smaller, the better since they slide down easier,” he says. “Some people like to dredge them in lemon or Tabasco, but I don’t recommend that. I like the natural taste of the sea. And like fish or meat, the taste of oysters varies depending on where they come from.” To savor the difference in what these mollusks deliver, try a couple of Pacific Kumamotos and Fanny Bays against the funky-flavored Maine Belons and Blue Points from Long Island’s Great South Bay.
Eastchester Fish Gourmet, 837 White Plains Rd., Scarsdale (914) 725-3450. Oysters are shucked in the kitchen and served at table. Right now Kumamoto, Rainier and Blue Points fill out the stock. “On a given night, we offer five to six different types of oysters,” says owner Rick Ross. “I think the ones from New England—the Blue Points and Malapeques—are the best, although we do have quite a few West Coast selections. The Belons, originally from France and now cultivated in Maine, have a delicate taste and, to me, are a real treat.”
The Fish Cellar, 213 Main St., Mount Kisco (914) 666-4448. Try two oysters at a time at this excellent raw bar. Longtime shucker Ty Paz-Kaiser, a treasure trove of oyster information, is always ready to share his expertise and anecdotes from his career with this mollusk. “The question I’m usually asked is whether I’ve ever found a pearl,” he says. “I’ve actually found three or four, mostly irregular, but one was almost perfectly round.” Try cultured Sound Harbors from Long Island, sweeter and less briny than the usual Eastern variety. Connecticut Candys, Hog Islands, Hood Canals, Dabob Bays are a few of those coming in.
Harrys of Hartsdale, 230 E. Hartsdale Ave., Hartsdale (914) 472-8777. Have a selection at the regular bar or at the small raw bar at the rear entrance. Iced oysters come on a tower, with a bowl beneath for shells. A glossary of some popular oysters is available. Choose from Chesapeake Bay, Kumamoto, Miyagi, Malpeque, Fanny Bay, and Pine Island.
Pacifico, 316 Boston Post Rd., Port Chester (914) 937-1610. Owner Rafael Palomino
doesn’t miss a theatrical beat. Oysters here are shucked and “staged” in the kitchen and brought into the dining room with showstopping drama. Right now Pine Islands, Belons, and Malpeques arrive magically, in a puff of smoke, which emanates from their bed of both regular and dry ice.
Restaurant X and Bully Boy Bar, 117 Rte. 303, Congers, NY (845) 268-6555. Miyagi, Peale Passage (unusually meaty for a Pacific oyster), Flower and Wellfleet, among others, come with a bit of sherry mignonette here. But owner and chef Peter Kelly is not one to leave it at that. For customers wanting a bit of theater, he creates oysters “cappuccino,” a mini stage set of warmed oysters arranged with English peas, morels and porcini foam. “Most people think of a cappuccino as a dessert, not a first course,” Kelly says. “But we set it up the same way, with the oysters served in the cappuccino cup, topped with porcini dust with a Parmesan and black pepper biscotti on the side, rather than a sweet biscotti.” Here, the big bar and lounge area with fireplace is the popular spot for sampling bivalves.
Ruby’s Oyster Bar & Bistro, 45 Purchase St., Rye (914) 921-4166. Ruby’s may be a noisy restaurant, but it has the desired turnover, shucking close to 400 oysters on weekends. As in other places, management tries to keep a balance of Atlantic and Pacific oysters in stock. Blue Points, Beausoleils, Golden Creeks, Chedabucto Hills, Eagle’s Creeks, Buzzards Bays, and Fishers Islands are among those rotated in season. “We like to keep oysters from both coasts on hand,” says Lisa McKiernan, an owner of the restaurant. “Some people come in and just ask for the biggest, which would be East Coast oysters. The western oysters are smaller and a little sweeter.”
Trotters, 175 Main St., White Plains (914) 421-5012. Hands-on chef and owner Anthony Goncalves keeps a close eye on his supply bedded on a mix of ice and salt. Expect Davis Bays, Sunberry Points, Hurricane Harbors from the East, Totten Inlets, Malaspinas, and Hama Hamas from the West, and others as the season progresses. A roomy bar and lounge at the entrance has the right atmosphere for knocking back a dozen, or two, or three.
Freelance writer and editor M.H. Reed is a food critic for the “Westchester” section of The New York Times.
Keep in Mind
Although their menus are eclectic, to please some of their customers, the following dining spots are among the few that carry a small and limited selection of raw oysters in season. Most of these places try to stock at least one each from the West and the East coasts.
8 North Broadway., Nyack, NY
At this noisy, colorful, trendy spot, three or four types of oysters are featured on an ice bed displayed on a long and lovely copper-clad bar.
49 North Riverside Ave.
As the name suggests, seafood is the name of the game. It’s dinner only here, and BYOB (for a small corkage fee) to this tiny restaurant that offers perhaps a half dozen of the day’s market’s best and most interesting raw oysters. Caveat: reservations are not accepted, and the place is quite compact.
Frankie & Johnnie’s Steakhouse
77 Purchase St. , Rye
This handsome redo of a classic bank building has a charming, comfortable lounge and bar area, where a platter of Blue Points can be ordered as a snack or as a classic precursor to a steak dinner.
Harvest on Hudson
1 River St., Hastings-on-Hudson
Whether snagging a spot on one of the comfy sofas in the roomy, moody lounge, at the tapas or regular bars or at a dining table, patrons will find a few brands available throughout the season.
Lexington Square Cafe
510 Lexington Ave.
The long, bright bar draws a cheerful crowd. And two or three raw types are kept chilling in the kitchen.