I live in a city whose biggest tourist attraction is known for literally throwing fish at you and hoping you catch it. We’re a seafood city. After spending most of my life in landlocked states, I vowed after moving to Seattle that I would take full advantage of coastal living—indulging in pricy seafood dinners, the freshest sushi, shrimp on my pasta and becoming an “oyster person”.
The first time I was introduced to oysters was when I was like 8. I remember seeing an episode of Rugrats where the parents, Stu and Didi, went to a fancy resort and ordered a round of oysters for the table to enjoy by the pool. From that moment on I considered oysters a member of the upper echelon of food alongside French dishes like caviar and escargot. The hors d’oeuvres of the elite.
With summer arriving in the Pacific Northwest the happy hours are abundant and the oyster specials ubiquitous. After three years of acclimating to the west coast, I think I’m finally ready to claim my seat at the shuckers table.
To prepare for my new role I did about an hour’s worth of haphazard googling, enough to make me think I was informed about oyster tasting etiquette, and then hastily made a plan to stop into an oyster bar today after work. Here’s how that went:
Walking into an oyster bar is intimidating when you don’t know anything about oysters. I had my pick of tables, but obviously this already self conscious occasion was begging for a seat at a table in the middle of an otherwise empty dining room, in the direct line of site of the entire restaurant staff. I’ve gotta admit, I was expecting it to smell more like the aquatic section of a PetSmart in there, but it sure didn’t. As I started to get used to my surroundings I noticed that I also happened to have chosen the seat that sat right next to, what seemed like, a living seafood spa in the center of the restaurant. It was piled high with a variety of shellfish, including the oh-so-phallic geoducks (pronounced: gooey•ducks). The crabs were staring at me and I cared too much.
My server placed a menu on the table and I immediately (and abruptly) identified myself as a newbie, blurting out, “I’VE NEVER HAD OYSTERS BEFORE,” like I was telling her I was experiencing a medical emergency. After getting over the shock of my exclamation she guided me through the menu. Most of the oyster’s names sounded like Fast and the Furious characters to me (Grand Cru, Fanny Bay, etc). We chose three to start with and a wine that would pair well with my salty snacks.
I surveyed what was left on the table in front of me: two forks. One normal sized and one miniature. I don’t know about you, but even in a normal restaurant setting irregular cutlery is always a catalyst for my anxiety. How would I ever use both forks? I pictured Ariel running the dinglehopper through her hair. Before I had time to act on this impulse, the server set down my glass of Muscadet. I raised the glass, gave it an ultra-confident swirl and took a big sip. It tasted clean and minerally. My confidence began to return and I braced myself for what would come to the table next.
Oyster 1 — Kumamoto
The six oysters were fanned out over crushed ice in front of me. In the middle was a lemon wedge and a ramekin filled with a dressing called champagne mignonette.
“Try the oysters on their own first,” she advised, “and then if you add seasoning be careful not to overwhelm the flavor of the oyster.”
She left me alone with the aliens on my plate. I started to feel a pang of regret for ordering six of them (2 of each), but I’m no quitter (especially when I’m being watched by a kitchen staff). I picked one up and, without thinking, tried to cooly toss it back like I read about on some blog. The meat in shell the wasn’t loose enough, so I got a mouth full of sea water. After loosening the gooey mass with a spoon I tried again and it slid right into my mouth.
“Holy shit it’s so slippery,” I thought. It tasted like I tripped and fell into the ocean with my mouth open, but it also tasted sweet. I didn’t hate it. The coloring of the shell reminded me of the camouflage clothing people deck themselves out for a night out in Arkansas.
I squeezed a drop of lemon on the second one and I loved it.
Oyster 2 — Kusshi
The Kusshis tasted less sweet and more like I was sipping on an ocean water cocktail. They were astringent and made my tongue feel dry. After three oysters I’d started to gain a little confidence back, but still felt self conscious being isolated in the middle of the room.
Between my third and fourth bites I had an enlightening conversation with the server about developing a palette for tasting oysters, so I decided to work harder at identifying flavors outside of ocean and salt. I put the fourth one in my mouth and slowly chewed. Suddenly I tasted…weird, wet mushroom?? Maybe I went a little aggressive on the lemon squeeze. How was I supposed to use the condiments?
I noticed the wine was starting to taste different—more mineral forward. Like a wet sea rock. Maybe I was becoming a barnacle.
Oyster 3 — Fanny Bay
“SHIT these are big,” I thought as I picked up the first Fanny Bay oyster. Their shells looked the most prehistoric. I decided that the slimy part of the oysters kind of look like rotting human ears to me, which is a bad comparison to make before you eat something. You know the dreadful feeling you get right before you take a big pill? That’s how I felt looking into this oyster.
I tossed it back.
I really chewed on this one. It tasted brighter than the others. I think. While I was trying to pay attention the meroir of the one in my mouth, I knocked my last oyster out of it’s shell, off my plate, and onto my phone’s screen. As I’m sure you have no problem imagining, I panicked and then surreptitiously attempted to slide the wet, slippery blob back into its shell. HORRIFYING. That’s when I noticed there were barnacles still on the shell. She’s fresh!
Rather than using the lemon on my second Fanny Bay, I decided to go with the champagne mignonette instead. Immediately I realized this was a choice I should have made from the beginning. It was delicious. The acidity of the vinegar really toned down the weird after taste that the oysters left in my mouth. I want to stay that it also amplified the other flavors, but if I’m being honest I was still only tasting salt. By this point I had come to terms with the fact that my oyster-tasting palette would not be developed by the end of my first visit. The wine tasted its best after the second Fanny Bay. They were my favorite.
This is where I thought the oyster adventure was going to end, but then I ordered two more because I was halfway through my glass of wine and I really wanted to challenge myself. It’d been thirty minutes and my nerves were lower so SURELY I’d be able to taste my final two more comprehensively.
By this point several more tables had been seated around me in the restaurant, and all of the people sitting at them seemed a lot more fancy and bourgeois than me. The seawater that was puddled in front of me on the table was like a small, salty puddle of shame.
Oyster 4 — Pacific (from Fanny Bay)
The last two oysters came and I felt less intimidated than I did earlier. With the flair of an aficionado I raised the shell to my my mouth, preparing to tip the next one in. Back, back, back my head went until the shell was completely vertical and my elbow was pointed towards the ceiling. I’d tried to shoot it the wrong way out of the shell. My eyes were wide and my cheeks were pink with self-inflicted embarrassment. Sea water dribbled down my chin.
As I chewed the gummy Pacific oyster I felt the makings of a (skeptical) Eureka moment, “Did that taste tomato-y, or did I make that up?”
Maybe it was just the viscosity. The shell was super beautiful. Like a very exaggerated ruffled Lays potato chip.
Oyster 5 — Shigoku
The last oyster was definitely briny, but also tasted kind of like a green bell pepper. Maybe my palette wasn’t a lost cause after all. After I finished, my lips were burning from all of the salt I’d put past them. I could confidently say the last oysters were my favorites. I knew I’d never never ever doubt the power of champagne mignonette again.
While I may never have a reserved seat at the shuckers table, I’ll definitely pay a visit to the oyster bar again. I don’t think they’re my favorite food, but I’m curious to learn more about the nuances of their flavors. People liken the methods of tasting oysters to that of tasting wine, and I can definitely see what they mean. The taste is ever changing and will always surprise you. I look forward to seeing what I taste on my next visit.
And, no, I never used the tiny fork.