Though oysters themselves may be shades of gray, their culinary reputation is black and white: Most people either worship them or despise them. Now that a raw-bar renaissance is well underway nationwide, however, even the haters are bound to come face-to-shell with the little guys sometime — and that’s as good a time as any to give them a second chance. And turns out, they also make you happy! Here are a few tips for making the most of the experience.
How to order oysters
Ideally, you’ll belly up to a bar that provides printed tasting notes for its daily selection, as at Boston’s Neptune Oyster: names like Pemaquid and Pleasant Bay may mean nothing to a newbie, but “salty, refreshing, mint finish” or “juicy, rich, buttery” will. Unfortunately, you don’t always get a cheat sheet. So Mac Hay of Cape Cod, Massachusetts restaurant-and-market group Mac’s Seafood suggests you start with one key question instead: “Where are they from?”
That’s important because oysters, like wines, are products of their terroir, defined by “not only where they’re grown but how they’re grown,” says chef-restaurateur David LeFevre of Fishing with Dynamite in Manhattan Beach, California. Accordingly, you can draw some broad distinctions between subtidal East Coast and intertidal West Coast oysters: The former, he explains, are “brinier and less meaty,” appealing to those who like “bright, clean, crisp” flavors, while the latter are “plumper, with nutty, cucumbery, melony notes.”
Note, however, that such generalizations have their limits. Just like two Burgundies from neighboring vineyards, Hay notes, “oysters are so distinct in their terroir” that Barnstables and Wellfleets can possess unique flavor profiles though both come from Cape Cod Bay. In that light, you’d do well to ask two other questions, says LeFevre: “Smaller or larger?” and “Milder or stronger?” That way, “you can find your comfort level. Kumamoto is the number-one oyster because it’s creamier and a more-manageable size.”
How to eat oysters
Once you’re facing down a platter, the primary thing to remember is that oysters are finger food, best slurped “right from the shell,” in Hay’s words. What’s the tiny fork for then? “To make sure that the meat’s no longer attached to the shell. It’s a little preparation tool.” You can also use it to transfer the shallots in a dish of mignonette to the meat à la European tradition, says LeFevre — which brings us to point two: Skip the condiments, at least on the first go, so as to savor the flavor unadulterated. When and if you opt to use them, do it sparingly: a squirt of lemon, a dot of cocktail sauce, a touch of horseradish (“fresh-grated, not prepared,” per LeFevre). Masking the taste is missing the point.
After that, it’s “bottoms up: You want the meat and all the liquor that comes with it,” Hay explains. “So much of the experience is drinking the juice, which is deep and complex and to be cherished.” Finally, you lay the shell back on the platter face down, a signal to your server that you’re finished.
Going beyond oysters
Believe it or not, raw clams may be even more of an acquired taste than oysters. In the case of quahogs such as littlenecks and cherrystones, Hay is A-OK with condiments: “The gamy flavor can be so strong; a squeeze of lemon and a dash of Tabasco cut through it.” Other common raw-bar items include chilled shrimp, crab legs, and lobster cocktail (which are actually cooked, so rest easy). As for the occasional octopus carpaccio or live sea urchin — maybe get the hang of those oysters first.
This post was originally published on Aug. 6, 2015.