Our Once and Future Oyster Capital
Eating an oyster is like putting the history of mankind on your tongue. Within its fluted shell, a single bivalve holds chronicles of gastronomy, culture, mythology, religion, evolution, royalty, geography and love. That and a bit of seawater.
“The Delmarva region is the keeper of much of North America’s oyster history,” says chef and restaurateur Ris Lacoste, whose restaurant in Foggy Bottom now offers fresh local oysters on the half shell throughout the weekend. A century ago, she reminds us, there were more than 150 oyster bars in the District, and the Chesapeake Bay was the largest oyster-producing area in North America. Washington was an oyster mecca.
However, because of massive overfishing, over-industrialization and disease, the Chesapeake oyster population had dwindled to about 1 percent of its population from the late 19th century, and Washington area oyster culture was nearly lost. Thankfully, due to population restoration efforts, the bay is once again home to around 180 million native oysters, and populations are on the upswing. With the help of devoted and knowledgeable oyster farmers, the history, abundance and flavor of Chesapeake oysters are once again filtering back into our culinary consciousness. The oysters that are now being farmed here are milder in complexity than their more northern cousins but wonderfully plump and meaty – perfect as they are, as well as in recipes that call for cooked oysters.
“The trick with an oyster’s flavor profile is where it lives in the water,” says Jed Foxx, sous chef and resident oyster authority at RIS. “If it lives in the ocean, it’s going to be salty. If it lives in a nutrient-rich environment, it’s going to grow fat quicker. If it’s surrounded by seaweed, it will pick up those flavors. There are almost infinite factors.”
Chesapeake Bay oysters typically come from fresher water, so they tend to have less salinity than those from other regions. “That’s an issue some people often have with them: less flavor,” says Jed. “But there’s more to look for in the flavor than how briny it is. Bay oysters can be delicious on the half-shell, but their milder, delicate flavors — sometimes woody, with hints of cucumber and sweetness — are great for cooking. You wouldn’t want to dump a cup of ocean water in your seafood stew. You just want that sweet oyster flavor.”
The other great pleasure with oysters, as we all know, is pairing them with choice libation. “Ideally, you are looking for something light, crisp and cleansing, with good minerality — qualities that compliment the flavor of oysters,” says Leah Cheston, wine director at RIS. “Rich and oversaturated drinks tend to muddle them.”
For wines, Leah recommends a good Chablis, Muscadet or Champagne. But the Chablis, which comes from the very north of Burgundy, is her favorite pairing. “The wines from that area have the natural richness of a good Chardonnay with crisp acidity and a flinty quality from the soil.” The Simonnet-Febvre is her personal pick, which is available by the glass at the restaurant.
For a beer selection, you may also be looking for lightness and crisp texture. A German Kolsch, for instance, fits this profile, with a clean yeastiness like fresh baked white bread that compliments the cool freshness of an oyster. Schlaffy’s Reissdorf, a German brew, does this expertly.
Then there’s the dry Irish stout. “Something magical happens when you mix an Irish stout with an oyster,” Leah says. “You’ve heard of an ‘oyster stout’ — that’s not an accident. It’s because they go so well together.” A stout is the fresh cracked pepper to the salt of the oyster, she explains. The contrast is remarkable. Bell’s, Murphy’s, Beamish and, of course, Guinness, all make fine stouts that pair well with oysters.
While there are some phenomenal oyster bars in the city — Pearl Dive, Kinkead’s, Hank’s Oyster Bar and the historic Old Ebbitt Grill are favorites of Ris and Jed — there are also great places to pick up oysters to shuck in the comfort of your home kitchen. (For a how-to shucking tutorial and a flat-out great guide to oysters of the world, pick up a copy of "Consider the Oyster," by world champion oyster shucker Patrick McMurray. “The Big Oyster” by Mark Kurlansky, and “A Geography of Oysters” by Rowan Jacobson are also good bets.)
Wagshal’s, on Massachusetts Ave., NW, has oysters in stock every day and can special order oysters from around the region. River Falls Seafood in Potomac, Md., and Cannons Fish Market in Georgetown are also good bets. At BlackSalt Fish Market & Restaurant in Georgetown, you can take oysters home or eat them at the bar.
”To cook with oysters, you need to be respectful of their natural flavors and be sure not to overcook them,” Ris says. “If you’re using them in seafood stew, don’t add them until the last couple of minutes. Let them retain their texture and flavors.”
Jed’s fried oysters are just the ticket. The corn-based masa flour is lighter and has brighter flavors than bread flours, matching texturally and palatably with something as delicate as an oyster. Use them to make a New Orleans-style po’ boy sandwich, oyster salad, or just stick ‘em with toothpicks and dip them in homemade tartar sauce. You can’t go wrong. So go out there and enjoy some local oysters. And as you do, please thank all those involved in the restoration of the Chesapeake for their huge effort and dedication in bringing back this gift to us and to our waters.
Jed’s Masa-Fried Oysters with Homemade Tartar Sauce
For the oysters
Fresh oysters, shucked, removed from shells, left in their liquid
Semolina flour, or cornmeal
Cayenne pepper (optional)
White pepper (optional)
Salt* (see below)
Oil (canola, vegetable or peanut)
Lemon, cut into wedges
For the tartar sauce
Dill pickles or butter pickles, finely diced
White onion, finely diced
A few drops of Tabasco sauce
Squeeze of lemon
Pinch of sugar
Salt and pepper
Mix the mayonnaise with a balance of the ingredients to suit your palate, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and store in the refrigerator until ready to use.
Season the masa flour with cayenne, white pepper, salt* and other spices to taste. Arrange two platters, filling one with the seasoned masa and the other with the semolina. Remove oysters from liquid, lightly toss in the masa and then the semolina. If the oyster is smaller and less plump, delicately clump it into a loose ball with your hand to give it extra bulk so as not to overcook.
In a skillet or frying pan, heat a quarter inch of oil on medium high. When the oil is very hot, fry the oysters for about ten seconds or less on each side, depending on the size, using tongs to flip. Don’t put more oysters in the pan than you can reasonably deal with at one time. The process is fast and you need to stay in control to prevent overcooking.
When cooked, transfer to a paper towel on a plate and let rest for a minute. The insides of the oysters should still be raw and gooey, not cooked all the way through. Serve immediately with the tartar sauce.
Salt* — Before adding salt to your seasoned masa flour, eat an oyster raw and consider its natural salinity. If the oyster is naturally salty enough, you don’t need to add more.