Get to know your Fanny Bay from your Beausoleil and be the toast of any table.
Oysters are said to be at their best during months containing the letter “r” (September-April), which means we’re just getting started on a season filled with slurping. But when faced with a list of oysters, how do you determine which bivalve mollusk is the best match for your palate?
As a general rule of thumb, when comparing oysters from East and West coasts, keep in mind the Western tend to be sweeter, smaller and softer, while the Eastern tend to be saltier, bigger and firmer. But beneath such generalizations, there’s much regional variation; some oyster enthusiasts even detect subtle flavor differences between bivalves grown on different sides of the same bay.
“Like wine, the way oysters taste depends greatly upon the specific area where they grow,” says Steve LaHaie, managing partner at Shaw’s Crab House. To help navigate the nearest oyster menu, read on for a quick lesson in some of the most popular varietals.
These oysters are some of the more approachable West Coast types; they’re relatively small and lightly flavored, with sweet hints of melon. “Kumamotos work best with subtle mignonettes or relishes that use Champagne or apple cider vinegar with water to reduce acidity,” says Michael Kornick, chef and owner of Fish Bar.
Kusshi, British Columbia
Meaning “precious” in Japanese, these diminutive oysters are similar in size to Kumamoto. “Kusshi are heavily tumbled [jostled in floating trays], so the oysters become meaty balls, with beautiful blue notes on the shell,” says Mark Palicki, vice president of marketing at Fortune Fish, a local seafood distributor. “They have a clean, lettuce-like flavor, are easy to eat and perfect for cocktail hour. Women like them because they’re dainty and cool-looking.”
Jorstad Creek, Washington
This mollusk qualifies as pleasingly plump and slightly sweet. With these and other oysters, LaHaie prefers a white wine accompaniment. “A Muscadet, or American Sauvignon Blanc, but nothing too grassy,” he says. “I find that the grassy and citrus flavors of some Sauvignons fight the oyster taste.”
Fanny Bay, British Columbia
According to Kornick, these plump oysters, are good for cooking, though he warns, “The goal is to change the temperature, not the texture, of the mollusk.” Kornick suggests gently warming oysters, then tossing with oyster-size gnocchi, brown butter and lemon.
Penn Cove Select, Washington
“They’re firmer and brinier than most West Coast oysters with a clean finish, plump, with a natural sweetness, perfect for frying,” says Giuseppe Tentori, who heads up GT Fish & Oyster. To drink, Tentori suggests Junmai Daiginjo sake — its mild sweetness pairs well with West Coast varieties.
These are entry-level East Coast oysters, lightly flavored with a delicate brine taste and a whisper of earthiness. “Oystermen cut through 4 feet of ice to harvest Beausoleil,” Palicki says. “And the colder the water, the sweeter the seafood.”
First Encounter, Massachusetts
These oysters are new on Shaw’s menu. LaHaie describes their flavor as “buttery,” with a lot of dimension and a pleasing texture. The richness pairs expertly with a crisp, clean vodka martini.
Old 1871, Virginia
Virginia is one of the largest U.S. oyster producers, and according to Tentori, Old 1871s are “medium-size, plump, salty and delicious.” To pair, he suggests “Gose beer, very light and crisp with notes of coriander, salt and citrus that work perfectly with salty East Coast oysters.”
Naked Cowboy, New York
You guessed it — these oysters are named after the Times Square minstrel. As Palicki notes: “The name is catchy. Sex sells. Everybody wants them on the menu.” They’re Manhattan’s biggest seller; for us, they seemed a touch, um, fleshy.
Grown from a French seed, these oysters are remembered fondly by chef Matthew Kirkley of L20 as being “strong and coppery. I drank Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine: My favorite oyster-wine pairing of all time.” Our most intense oyster experience was also eating Belons, which are dense, almost crunchy and unforgettable.
Put your newfound knowledge to use at these restaurants, lauded for their exceptional oysters:
• Fish Bar, 2956 N. Lakeview, (773) 687-8177; Fishbarchicago.com
• GT Fish & Oyster, 531 N. Wells, (312) 929-3501; Gtoyster.com
• L2O, 2300 Lincoln Park West, (773) 868-0002; L2orestaurant.com
• The Publican, 837 W. Fullerton, (312) 733-9555; Thepublicanrestaurant.com
• Shaw’s Crab House, 21 E. Hubbard, (312) 527-2722; Shawscrabhouse.com