From the neophyte to the avowed oyster lover, each of us at some point has stopped cold with wonder (or disgust), contemplating a raw oyster presented on the half shell, in all its quivering opalescent shininess (some might call slime), with "veins" of blue-black visible, thinking "who was the brave soul that first tried one of these" and "what was he/she thinking?" True oyster fans shrug, slurp and chew, grateful to those adventurous eaters who came before us and dared.
Oysters have been a mainstay on many Seattle menus for years, such as Shuckers (consider the oyster happy hour), The Brooklyn and Elliott's. Oysters served raw are shucked and presented on the half shell, usually on a bed of shaved ice, accompanied with a wedge of lemon and some type of mignonette and, often, grated horseradish. (The art of shucking and presenting oysters is another topic altogether.) Many cooked preparations are also offered.
It seems that the world beyond the Pacific Northwest has recently discovered oysters, specifically oysters on the half shell. The new wave of celebrity is exemplified by Renée Erickson's The Walrus and The Carpenter, located in Ballard, which was featured in The New York Times Travel section within the past year and was recently listed in Bon Appétit as one of the top 10 restaurants in the U.S. that matter.
A few new restaurants are focusing on oysters (Ballard Annex Oyster House) and many restaurants seem to be emphasizing oysters on the menu or remodeling to add an oyster bar. Perhaps the best measure of the mollusk's new stardom, last month "Jeopardy" provided the following answer: The smallest native oyster in the Pacific Northwest. (Tweet or direct-message your question to @schwabedinesout.)
The following is a random selection of the many excellent places to order and enjoy these daring delectables. Most of these restaurants serve full menus in addition to oysters and are worth visiting for that option as well. And if you haven't yet taken the oyster plunge, try it, you might like it. If you are ordering oysters for the first time, do not hesitate to ask your server for suggestions and instructions.
Taylor Shellfish at Melrose Market (1521 Melrose Ave., Seattle; 501-4321; taylormelrose.com): Whether you're from the "I tried an oyster once ..." or the "I live for oysters" crowd, Taylor Shellfish is a great place to "re-dip" the proverbial toe into the saltwater.
The variety of oyster options by size, type, brininess and texture provides even the most tentative of tasters (virgin or otherwise) a great selection from which to choose. Consider Taylor Shellfish a shellfish university. It has raised and harvested oysters in the Pacific Northwest for more than 100 years. The staff is knowledgeable and seems to know everything there is to know about oysters: history, how they're raised and harvested, how to shuck, where to find them, how to eat them - the list goes on. At Taylor Shellfish, you can select shellfish, including clams and oysters, to take home or order oysters on the half shell, oyster stew and a glass of wine to enjoy on site.
One of the most popular oysters is the Kumamoto. Its sweet taste and honeydew finish, as well as its small size, will give you the confidence to try others. The Kumamoto is reminiscent of a cool glass of Sauvignon Blanc on a warm afternoon.
If you like a metallic finish, the Oly is your bet. No bigger than a quarter or 50-cent piece, this little guy is a great oyster to "sink your teeth into," bursting with a coppery flavor. If you're looking for a briny (salty) taste, the Pacific and Shigoku oysters are good choices. Both are small in size and clean in taste - think salted cucumbers and sunshine.
Last, but not least, is the Virginica. Introduced in Washington in the 1890s, this oyster is for the "seasoned" shooter fan. The meat is clean and briny, but the size is a bit intimidating for the less-experienced connoisseur.
Parting words - don't let the look of oysters fool you. They actually don't taste, feel or chew like, well, what we all have said they remind us of ... anyway. Having choices and someone to guide you along the first time (or second, years later) make the decision easier and the level of bravery higher, and made this reviewer a new and lifelong fan.
Elliott's Oyster House (1201 Alaskan Way, Pier 56, Seattle; 623-4340; elliottsoysterhouse.com) has long been a reliable place for fresh oysters. Elliott's large selection of various types of oysters includes more than 30 different "West Coast Pacific oysters" (18 in stock on the day we were there), priced at $2.50 each, and nine "special" oysters (five on our visit) that are $2.75 or $3.50 each. The specialty oysters included some of our favorites such as the South Sound Kumamoto and the Stellar Bay Pacific.
Elliott's menu provides specific information on where and how each oyster variety was grown and harvested. At a recent visit, we selected Olympia, Stellar and Hama Hama varieties. The oysters were presented on ice accompanied with a slice of lime and a pepper-champagne mignonette sorbet. Cocktail sauce was available upon request, but be warned it will most likely overpower the oyster taste, especially the more mild oysters. Our favorite was the Olympia and we loved the mignonette sorbet (you can ask for extra).
Wines by the glass, "paired" with different oysters, are lighter, crisp white wines with a tinge of sweetness that complemented the oysters nicely.
One of the familiar standbys on Capitol Hill, Coastal Kitchen (429 15th Ave. E., Seattle; 322-1145; coastalkitchenseattle.com), has recently remodeled its ground floor to convert a former bar from drinks to oysters. Coastal Kitchen offers a smaller (six the night we were there) selection of local oysters priced individually, by the half-dozen or dozen.
Friday features "Friday Night Flights" - three oysters for $7, served on ice with lemon. Our flight included Chef Creek, Kusshi and Evening Cove varieties, all from Vancouver Island. We liked these, but we also tried a half-dozen of the Kumamotos from Totten Inlet, which were our favorites. The Kumamotos were served with a mignonette of champagne vinegar with whole peppercorns and spring onion. The mignonette was very good; the oyster chef experiments and changes the mignonettes every few weeks. The one scheduled to start the next week was a Manhattan. (We plan to go back to try that.)
Other condiments are available, such as cocktail sauce or horseradish, but as usual, unless applied cautiously, these can overwhelm the oyster. The menu also offers oyster preparations other than on the half shell. We plan to return and look forward to checking out the frequent mignonette experimentation to go with the oysters.
The menu at Matt's in the Market (94 Pike St. #32, Seattle; 467-7909; mattsinthemarket.com) coyly notes that "eating raw or undercooked product may not be so good for you." However, throwing caution to the wind, we decided to sample oysters at lunch recently.
My lunch guest was new to the area and had never before eaten raw oysters. However, egged on by his host, he gamely agreed to give it a go. The oysters were served not on the usual bed of crushed ice, but instead rested on a plate-sized, mini-skating rink of what was described as "kimchi ice." For a brief moment, licking the frozen pool of kimchi ice seemed reasonable before abandoning the idea and returning to the oysters.
We were served diminutive Kushi oysters, which were fragrant, mild flavored, firm textured and almost chewy. The server explained that they get two deliveries daily, the first destined for lunch and the second for dinner. Even though the oysters were not briny, a palate-clearing glass of dry white wine would have accompanied the oysters nicely.
The service was exemplary and our window table had a view of the bustling Market below in the feeble sunlight of an early spring afternoon. Matt's should not be overlooked on your quest for these wholesome treats.
In a small, but stylish, renovated Ballard commercial building sits The Walrus and The Carpenter (4743 Ballard Ave. NW, Seattle; 395-9227; thewalrusbar.com). On any given night, you may encounter a sizable wait. Like Anthony Bourdain, there are no reservations. Midweek is your best bet.
Growing up in the Northwest and eating oysters right off the beach made it difficult to understand the cult-like attraction to The Walrus and The Carpenter. That was until we slipped in on a rainy Wednesday evening. Fortunately, all of the tables were full and the hostess showed us to the bar. The bartender is a consummate pro, mixing lively classics like the "Moscow Mule" along with featured cocktails we had never seen including "Shrub A Dub Dub" - bourbon, blood orange vinegar, lemon and soda.
With cocktails in hand, we turned to the list of oysters available that day and ordered a mixed dozen. They were presented perfectly. That night, the Totten Pacific was the star. With the briny goodness still on our palates, we decided to try the fried oysters with cilantro aioli ("when in Rome..."). We have never had fried oysters as good as these. They were very lightly battered and flash fried to perfection.
In addition to the oysters, we progressed through a full and delicious meal that did not leave room for dessert. We asked the bartender whether he had a special bourbon to finish the meal. Willett's eight-year was a great recommendation and the perfect way to end the evening. For oysters and much more, you cannot go wrong at The Walrus and The Carpenter.
Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt is a multiservice, Northwest regional law firm with offices in Seattle, Vancouver, Portland and Bend. For comments on this article or to share your favorite places to eat or drink with the Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt attorneys, contact Mary Jo Newhouse at 407-1526 or at firstname.lastname@example.org; see also www.schwabe.com/dining_out.aspx. Follow us on Twitter @schwabedinesout.