Roister with the Oyster

What you need to know to get it on with oysters

If only the great food writer M.F.K. Fisher, who asked us to consider the oyster in her famous 1941 book, could step up to a raw bar today. She’d be blown away. 

Alongside the briny Wellfleets and Blue Points of her era, she’d find an eye-popping array of bivalves with names she’d never heard of: Dabobs, Dosewallips, Witch Ducks, Naked Cowboys, Hama Hamas and Little Skookums—each with flavors as subtle and varied as a fine wine. 

Even as natural oyster stocks in North America have steadily declined, oyster farming has gone supernova. A boon of emerging and established producers are meeting growing demand by cultivating and branding previously unknown varieties, often using new aquaculture techniques.  “Back in the 1990s, it was very difficult to buy oysters,” says Sandy Ingber, executive chef at the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York City. “We were lucky to have three or four on the menu during the summer. Today, we’ve got 25 or 30.” 

Restaurant-goers are discovering that oysters embody foodie buzzwords every bit as much as an heirloom tomato or grass-fed steak. Farm-to-table? There is nothing more direct-source than an oyster on the half shell, which was shipped from shore alive and dispatched with a shucking knife minutes before serving. Seasonal? The taste and texture of an oyster change dramatically over the course of its yearly reproductive cycle, as water temperatures change  month by month. Sustainable? Almost all oysters are cultivated on farms—not harvested in the wild—and actually improve the health of offshore ecosystems, thanks to the mollusks’ filtering effect. 

Each nuance of flavor and texture in a well-farmed oyster is a vivid expression of the inlet or estuary it came from; everything from tidal flows to aquatic nutrients plays a part in how it tastes. It’s a quality that Rowan Jacobsen, author of “A Geography of Oysters,” sums up with the phrase “oysters with somewhereness.”

David McAninch is editor-at-large for Saveur magazine and has yet to meet a bivalve he doesn’t love.

Not Quite a Dime a Dozen

Wholesale prices for live East Coast and West Coast oysters generally range from $7 to $12 per dozen, depending on the variety. This does not include shipping, which can add considerable cost, especially if the oysters have to travel between coasts. 

“I basically take the price I paid, plus the freight, and I multiply by three,” says Sandy Ingber of New York’s Grand Central Oyster Bar. The formula yields a different to-the-penny menu price for each variety. Renee Erickson of The Walrus and the Carpenter in Seattle takes a slightly different approach, marking up some oysters more or less than others to create more standardized menu prices. “All our oysters are usually either $2, $2.50, or $3 apiece,” she says.

Top Toppers 

Oyster purists shun the thought of putting anything between shellfish and taste buds, but chefs love to play with accompaniments. Stuart Brioza, chef-owner of State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, has been experimenting with pickled and fermented toppings. “Fermentation provides an acidity that offsets the richness of a cool season oyster,” he says. His Beausoleil oysters with spicy kohlrabi kraut and toasted sesame seeds has become a best-seller. “It’s as much about the garnish as it is about  the oyster,” he says. Here are a few other ideas:

Summer vegetable vinaigrette with tomato water, raw garlic, sherry vinegar and basil oil 
State Bird Provisions, San Francisco

Champagne vinegar mignonette with freshly grated horseradish 
The Walrus and the Carpenter, Seattle

Cucumber lemon granita, tangerine salsa 
R’evolution, New Orleans

Applewood quick smoked, with fried wild rice  and pork belly 
Ruxbin, Chicago

Red onion shiso 
Juvia, Miami Beach, Fla.

Oyster water and limoncello granita 
Fiola, Washington, D.C.

Six to Seek Out 

Kusshi Vancouver Island, British Columbia
Kusshis are the original tumbled oysters, cultivated through an increasingly popular West Coast practice of suspending bags of oysters from racks in the jostling tides so that they knock against each other, developing a deep cup and firm meat that fills the shell. Anticipate a mild, clean flavor and a jewel-like plumpness. 

Beausoleil Miramichi Bay, New Brunswick
Want to guarantee a successful first bite? Go with this petite, pretty bivalve for a fresh, bright taste born of the chilly waters of Canada.

Belon Boothbay Harbor, Maine
Grown predominately in Maine and often referred to as big and bold, the Belon is most appreciated by the seasoned oyster slurper who loves its notoriously metallic finish.
Kumamoto, West Coast
This sweet, petite specimen—a subspecies of Pacific oyster whose name suggests its Japanese ancestry—offers the perfect introduction to West Coast oysters, which lean toward fruitier, less briny flavors.

Naked Cowboy, Long Island, N.Y.
The bivalve’s name (an homage to the eponymous guitar-strumming street performer in Times Square) is a grabber, while its refreshingly salty, minerally, firm-fleshed traits deliver on flavor.

Olympia Puget Sound, Wash.
This silver-dollar-sized oyster is a West Coaster’s holy grail. Imagine an intense metallic flavor that can send beginners running back to their sweet Kumamotos.