Taste of the Town - In Search of Oysters



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In Search of Oysters

A Culinary Love Story


BY JULIA PARK
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PHYLLIS CHRISTOPHER

When you get a taste for something, and a craving comes upon you-for dark chocolate, for a crisp Chardonnay or a kiss from your sweetheart, you want it, and you want it now. It's that way for me with oysters, raw oysters, that is, and when I want them, I prefer not to leave the Island to get them.
    When I moved to Alameda, I noticed a sad lack in the availability of raw oysters, particularly in local restaurants. The surf-n-turf places don't regularly offer raw oysters, and most ethnic eateries have them cooked, if at all. That's a crying shame. The great food writer MFK Fisher wrote in her paean to the mollusk, Consider the Oyster, that "there are three kinds of oyster-eaters: those loose-minded sports who will eat anything: hot, cold, thin, thick, dead or alive, as long as it is oyster; those who will eat them raw and only raw, and those who with equal severity will eat them cooked and no other way." I am of the second group; the hot, shriveled flesh of a poor incinerated oyster will never pass my lips.
    But give me the succulent sea-taste of a raw oyster, its sweet-salt flesh still pulsing; give me a squeeze of fresh lemon, a spritz of Tabasco, and watch the mollusk disappear. The juices in the shell are the chaser. A sip of cold Champagne, of warm sake or pretty much any such beverage completes the treat. A plate of these morsels, my friends, and we are halfway to heaven, and never mind the expense.
    Folklore tell us that Casanova ate 40, or 50, or as many as 500 oysters before making love to his current paramour, depending on the source. Literary lights as disparate as Jack London and Aesop wrote of the oyster, as did Shakespeare, Mark Twain and Nietzsche, Lewis Carroll (in his famous Through the Looking Glass), Frederick Douglass, Charles Darwin and Shel Silverstein. To the Romans, oysters were worth their weight in gold.
A true "ostraphile" knows something of the oyster.
After sampling the many species available at market today, one begins to get a taste for these morsels and how best to eat them.

Local Pearls


    The late, great Tomodachi Japanese restaurant on Park Street offered the sweetest platters of raw oysters with lemon, scallion, daikon radish and chili pepper garnish. They served oyster shooters as well, a treat for the gastronomically adventurous. The raw oyster sat in a cordial glass topped by a raw quail egg and a splash of sake, topped with gobo (marinated burdock root) and tobiko (flying fish roe). It went down in a slimy rush, the heat from the garnish mingling with the sake to warm the belly. The raw quail egg was a bit much, though, and one of those in a lifetime is frankly enough for anyone. If you really like oyster shooters, however, cross the Bay and try the Bloody Mary shooters at Butterfly in San Francisco (Pier 33 at Bay Street, 415-291-9482); they come gratis with an order of raw.
    The best places to order up raw oysters in Alameda are the Japanese restaurants-Sushi House, Angel Fish, Sakura and Yume, among others. At Sushi House (2375 Shoreline Drive, 510-865-0999), the waitstaff will bring you a plate of four, but if you're really desirous, they'll plate up a dozen and keep them coming until they run out. Four on the half shell come with lemon and soy, with scallion and fish roe for a salty crunch; the server will bring hot sauce if you ask. The oysters are usually Hog Island or other Pacific oysters, clutched in the shell like a small child's fist, shimmering and swimming in their own liquor. A dozen on ice is a nice beginning to a meal; three dozen make a fine meal. The addition of miso, rice and sashimi or sushi rolls can fill the table if you're really hungry.
    Angel Fish (883 C-2 Island Drive, 510-749-0460) offers an artistic presentation (the plate is a work of art, and the gourmand enjoys looking, appreciating and anticipating almost as much as savoring the sweet fruits de mer). Five oysters come on a plate ("Goosepoints" the last time we went), as big as a silver dollar and balanced on ice, accompanied by a condiment of chili, scallion, lemon and soy. We ask for additional lemon and chili, to dress them to our taste. At Sakura (2408 Santa Clara Ave. 510-749-9988), the raw oysters come three to a plate, with lemon and a few drops of hot sauce, and go down nicely with green tea at lunch, or with Bishonen or Suishin sake at dinner.
    Local gourmands have their take on the best way to eat oysters. Food writer Gil Michaels says, "I have always associated
oysters served on the half shell-the best way-with love and seduction. Is there any more romantic aperitif than freshly shucked oysters and a bottle of icy Champagne? Oysters are meant to be consumed in the company of one's paramour, not in solitude. If you want to eat in solitude, have a liverwurst sandwich."
    What to drink with raw oysters is a matter of debate. While some favor Champagne for romance or beer for blue-collar bliss, and sake turns out to be a tasty accompaniment, which is the best wine? "One must move beyond the idea of pairing wines with the generic oyster," says Jeff Cambra, founder of the Alameda Food and Wine Society.
    "Anyone who truly appreciates the delicacy knows that oysters come in many shapes, taste types and dominance of flavor. Many people pair higher-acid wines like Sauvignon Blanc with the tender morsels. If you have a dominant-flavored species like a Blue Point, the acid component of the wine serves to cleanse the mouth in preparation for the next bite. However, this same acid can reduce the tongue's ability to distinguish subtle nuances of a Kumamoto, which is one of the more delicate-tasting species. In the end, there is no perfect wine to pair with any food. The rule is experiment, see what works for you and enjoy," he says.
    Whatever the beverage, sometimes, as it happens, Island restaurants run out, or can't get oysters. But if you're really in the mood, you can always try Oakland restaurants: Scott's Seafood at Jack London Square (2 Broadway) has them, as does the Oyster Reef (1000 Embarcadero). Luka's Taproom (2221 Broadway) has $1 oysters at Monday's happy hour, and the regular menu offers a delicious array of oysters (Point Reyes, Hog Island, Kumamoto) with cava mignonette, crème fraîche or Meyer lemon and bay leaf granité. Pearl (5634 College Ave.) features six varieties of oyster at any time (last time it was Duck Island, Eld Inlet, Fanny Bay, Hog Island, Marin Atlantic and Kumamoto); you can order the sampler dozen, or your choice by the half-dozen or dozen. Heavenly!

The Perfect Raw


    Pat Potter, known as "Uncle Pat," to the customers at the Alameda Marketplace's JP Seafood, says, "We're trying to get more people turned onto oysters." Kumamotos, or "Kumis," as Potter calls them, are delicious. "There's no fuss, they're always good, they open easily," he says. "We've turned a lot of people onto Kumis." They're small, easy to swallow. "If they're bigger, they're a job," he says. Just as with a perfect slice of sushi roll, you're not supposed to bite into a raw oyster. Protocol demands that they be taken in one gulp if possible. However, it is permissible to sip the liquor from the shell afterward.
    Blue Point shells are ruffled; the oyster itself is a hearty mouthful. But Kumis are about as big as a 50-cent piece, greenish on the outside with a flat top shell and a cupped undershell; inside, the flesh is about the size of a quarter. They are very expensive for their size; some people call them "the cocaine of oysters," and Potter concurs.
    To open an oyster, you need a towel or something to grip the oyster with, Potter says. An oyster knife (a short, wide, pointed blade) is nice, but a flat screwdriver will also work. Aim for the hinge, twist and pop it open. When the shell pops, slide the knife in and cut the muscle, top and bottom. Try not to spill all the juices. If you can't get it open, try putting the oysters in the freezer for 20 minutes. The cold will cause them to open a bit on their own.
    "You shouldn't be able to just slide your knife in," says JP Seafood owner Joey Pucci. It should be a bit of a challenge. A good oyster will be "nice and full," he says. The shell outside should be wet or moist, never dry. "It should taste fresh, like the ocean," Pucci says. "When you put it in your mouth, you should always taste a bit of the ocean. If someone else opens them, you lose the juice."
    It used to be you couldn't eat oysters in the summer-or any month without an R in its name. But those days are over, because almost all oysters served in America are farmed, not wild, say Potter and Pucci. "They're better tended, more controlled. Even red tide [a natural algae bloom that can affect oysters-and humans] is rare," says Potter.
    A fan of oysters himself, Pucci says, "People are educated-now they know the difference between a Kumamoto and a Blue Point." JP Seafood has three varieties of oysters at any time and can custom order any type of oyster desired.
    And what about the supposedly erotic, aphrodisiacal qualities of oysters-is that true? "Oh, yes," Potter says. "It's kind of like foreplay-like, cooking with someone you love is erotic. You have a glass of wine. It's the anticipation." And consuming the raw oyster itself? "It's briny, the texture is sensual. It's like kissing," Potter says. Indeed.
    For a taste like the kiss of the ocean, head to your local sushi place or fishmonger and order up a platter today-with someone you love.