If you want to truly understand the essence of a place, then go in search for its oysters. These ancient creatures will reveal a lot about the world–from the subtle flecks of color in the shells to the way that they are devoured–the oyster evokes the hidden truth behind the land, water, and people. In the most eloquent words of a fellow ostreaphile at Travel + Leisure:
Rare is the culture that doesn’t love oysters. They are everywhere. But they’re also decidedly Somewhere: within its singular shell, each oyster carries its provenance like a fingerprint. Knocking one back is like mainlining the cove it came from. — Peter Jon Lindberg
During the last two months of 2010, I had the incredible opportunity to travel around the world for business. When I wasn’t working or sleeping, I was hunting for oysters. I succeeded in finding them in 10 of the 14 countries that I visited. In some places, oysters were easy to find. In others, it was nearly impossible. I tried over 30 new kinds of oysters and noted my very favorites. Keep in mind that most, if not all of these oysters are NOT sold in the U.S. market. The federal government currently has tight restrictions on oyster imports from outside of North America, which makes them a serious destination food. So here is my top 11 for 2011. If you love to travel, explore, eat, and savor, keep this list close at hand. Make the world your oyster too!
1. Tasmania from Australia: Raised and harvested from the land down under, these plump gigas oysters are deliciously creamy and adventurous in texture. The seaweed-flavored saltiness evokes an image of the majestic ocean with frothy white surf, and then it transitions into a gentle sweetness that leaves a clean, crisp aftertaste. They’re a substantial size, so if you’re a petite oyster eater, brace yourself. Their consistently bright and buttery flavors make it a staple among the “elites” (Belon, Fine de Claire, Gillardeau, Kumamoto) in the Asian market.
2. Namibian Pacific from Namibia: Exotic places produce exotic flavors. Thanks to the nutrient-rich waters of Walvis Bay, these African gigas oysters grow quickly to be lusciously plump. They aren’t very salty, but packed with other earthy minerals. A punch of copper-zinc-steel flavors will linger in the back of your throat until you take a few gulps (maybe a whole glass) of water. In 2008, repeat red tide events devastated the population, wiping out up to 80-90% of yields. Given the limited quantity and distribution, Namibia oysters are a rare treat for any adventure seeker.
3. Santa Catarina from Brazil: The quintessential Brazilian experience would be to have this oyster with a drizzle of lime, then followed by a sip of caipirinha. Sit back, relax, and your mind will go blissfully blank. Santa Catarinas are quite salty, which the lime helps to balance out. There’s also some rocky minerality and vegetal tones in the meat. At the time, I swore that it kind of tasted like bean sprouts (in a good way!) While Rio de Janeiro is a prominent coastal city, I discovered that the people there are surprisingly detached to shellfish and seafood. (Meat is the name of the game there.) I was only able to find a couple of places that offered oysters– one all-you-can-eat ordeal and another ultra high end seafood restaurant. Head south to Florianópolis, where oysters are king. That’s also where you’ll find the freshest Santa Catarina oysters around.
4. Kelly Galway from Ireland: The native Irish ostrea edulis (European flat) oyster is like the gregarious, bodybuilding uncle of the Belon. Its got a similar round discus shell, but 150% bigger than the biggest Belons that I’ve encountered. The adductor muscle is filled with soy sauce-like savoriness and is extremely large. In fact, it makes it look like the oyster is smiling like . While I’m not the biggest flat oyster fan, I could eat two or three dozen of these Kelly Galways. They paired extremely well with a 2009 Rias Baixas from Bodegas Terras Gauda. The perfect time to enjoy these would be at the Galway International Oyster Festival in Ireland!
5. Sydney Rock from Australia: This Saccostrea glomerata oyster is a completely different species than any found in North America and lives everywhere around Australia and New Zealand. They are sturdy, adaptable and can tolerate a wide range of salinity levels. Their slender, cylindrical bodies are nestled in a sharply fluted shell with light-colored mantles that appear to be “shrunken” inwards– as if they were cold (brrr). Upon the first bite, the firm and elastic texture only adds to their tenacious reputation. These oysters can vary in taste, depending on where they are harvested in Australia. The ones that I tasted were earthy and pungent in flavor. They had a wonderfully nostalgic fishiness to them that reminded me of smoked or salted seafood.
6. Speciales Gillardeau from France: Considered to be the crème de la crème among French varieties, the Speciales Gillardeau has captured the discerning palettes of gourmands everywhere. This tender-bodied oyster is rolling with rich, broth-like savoriness that I immediately associate to really awesome miso soup. A smaller size will offer up even more vibrant flavors than larger ones. Don’t mistake them for the regular Gillardeau oysters– they are not quite the same. Gillardeau’s are not as sweet and complex in flavor. Though they may give off a nutty taste, which could be interesting to explore as well.
7. Fines de Claire from France: This is another favorite among Parisians and apparently throughout the world (I observed them being sold at fine restaurants in London, Brussels, Moscow, Dubai, Shanghai and Hong Kong). The elongated shell houses a slender and delicate body. The meat varies in saltiness, but possesses a crisp, fruity flavor. I’ve encountered Fine de Claires that have a melon rind finish. Fines de Claires must be fattened in a salty marsh bed (aka claire), where they will filter nutrient-rich water for a minimum of 2 months.
8. Jersey Coast from Jersey: Completely unrelated to the Jersey Shore or Snooki– there’s no need for that kind of a situation. (Bad pun, I know, but I couldn’t help myself). These deep-cupped oysters are from the little island of Jersey: a breathtakingly beautiful, environmentally-conscious, and culturally diverse place just north of the Normandy coastline. All Jersey oysters are harvested from the Royal Bay of Grouville, which gets a daily influx of some of the cleanest sea water in Europe. The meat is supple, crisp, and very savory, which was a bit addicting (kind of like like potato chips, but 2000% healthier!)
9. Senpoushi from Japan: At the Fish House Oyster Bar in Ebisu, a quiet neighborhood in Shibuya, Tokyo, a brochure of oysters from all over the country and world was bestowed upon me. Depending on the time of year, different varieties will be in season. It is challenging to experience the true essence of the oyster here due to Japan’s strict raw shellfish regulations. However, despite the post-harvest processing, the Senpoushi still managed to taste great. The body is long and shallow, while the meat is pleasantly creamy. It’s moderately salty and has incredible umami.
10. Bouzigues from France: Shellfish farming is a serious business in the Étang de Thau, the second largest lake in France. People produce both plates (edulis, flat) or creuse (gigas) oysters in the brackish waters. I tried the flat variety in Hamburg and was pleasantly surprised by its crunchy texture and fruity flavor. It had an aftertaste very much like watermelon rind– which was both unusual and refreshing. The best way to enjoy this oyster is to head directly over to Bouzigues and do an oyster tour and tasting.
11. Loch Ryan from Scotland: This oyster is intense in character and heralds from a historic maritime place. The Statistical Account of Scotland 1791-99 recorded that Loch Ryan “abounds with oysters of a most excellent flavour.” Today, both native (wild) and rock (farmed) oysters are harvested. These flat edulis oysters have a tangy, long-lasting metallic flavor that lingers in the back of your mouth. Smaller sizes are more potent in taste, while the larger sizes are more mild and sweet. Pair them with a full bodied white wine to enhance the taste of both.
Here’s a wrap up map that illustrates approximately where all of these oysters come from.
For more information about oysters around the world, check out some of these helpful articles/documents!
World’s Top Oyster Bars by Travel + Leisure
The Best Oyster Bars in the World by Journey Etc
Great Britain Oyster Tasting Guide (PDF) by Shellfish Association of Great Britain
Oysters of France by John McCabe
We are nearing the peak oyster season, and I haven’t stepped foot into an NYC oyster bar yet… sigh. Truth is, I’ve been traveling a lot… like, a whole lot. In fact, I’m currently traveling for business and won’t rest until the middle of December. Given my “predicament,” I’ve been actively seeking out local oyster bars during my free time. My goal is to try oysters from every country that I visit… assuming that they eat oysters.
I’ll be tracking my progress on this post and write more in-depth entries about them after I get a decent break (and a chance to download/edit my photos on my Macbook).
LONDON: Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill
My experience at Bentley’s was fantastic. The shucker-slash-chef (?) noticed my abundant enthusiasm for the oyster and offered up some lovely Spanish white wine (2009 Rias Baixas from Bodegas Terras Gauda) to pair and crushed black pepper to spice up the flavor. For a first taste, I never season my oysters with anything, but I have to admit that a dash of black pepper was quite refreshing. It dimensionalized the salty liquor without masking the full flavor of the oyster like many other sauces would do. The raw menu was divided into two groups: “Native” oysters (wild) and “Rock” oysters (farmed). A few of the oysters were further categorized by size (No. 5 — smaller and No. 2 — larger). The prices varied from 5 GBP ($8.14) for three farmed oysters to 4.15 GBP $6.70 for a single oyster.
West Mersea — No. 2, Great Britain: flat shell, firm texture, burst of mineral flavor, salty ham finish
Loch Ryan — No. 3, Scotland: flat shell, bold and long-lasting metallic (zinc?) taste, abrasive finish
Loch Ryan — No. 1, Scotland: sweeter and milder than No. 3, slightly crunchy, miso soup aftertaste
Maldon Rock, Great Britain: ultra deep-cupped, rocky taste, slightly muddy, soft crunch
Jersey Coast, Jersey: deep-cupped, fantastic salty/umami aftertaste (like potato chips)
Kelly Galway, Ireland: flat shell, firm texture, rich & smooth, soy flavors, metallic finish
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BRUSSELS: Belga Queen Oyster Bar
This is my third trip to Brussels, but first time to Belga Queen. (Thanks for the reco Allie!) In US restaurants, it is expected for the shucker to separate the oyster from its shell by cutting bottom adductor muscle. This way, the patron can slurp the oyster down in one swift and sexy motion. In Brussels, I quickly learned that this was not an international oyster serving protocol. Belga Queen offered eight different oysters from France, one from the Netherlands and I ordered two of every kind. I was in heaven… until I was thrown a curve ball. All of the oysters on my platter were solidly stuck to their bottom shells. I called my waiter back and asked if this was a mistake. He looked at me with surprise. “No, no, no–Thees ees not how we do eet in Bruxelles!” Then he proceeded to show me how to clumsily detach the oyster from the shell with a cocktail fork. I was slightly devastated, since there was no way to not puncture the delicate meat. That night, still distraught, I emailed author Robb Walsh of “Sex, Death & Oysters” about my experience. He promptly responded and said that this is how it’s done in most of Europe. The rationale is that the oyster stays alive longer with one adductor muscle still attached. Wonderful. Despite the oyster massacre I had to overcome, they were extremely delicious. I wonder whether or not they would have been better if they were cleanly shucked.
Belon — No. 5: petite, strong zinc taste, slightly chewy
Belon — No. 2: bold punch of savoriness, sweeter than the No. 5, flavor of zinc was still present
Fines de Claire: long, delicate, white flesh, the salty taste reminded me of soy sauce
Pousses en Claire: amazingly rich kelp flavors in a thinner meat, this oyster is quite rare/special
Normandy: deep-cupped, fat and meaty, slightly sweet, ripened cheddar cheese finish
Speciales Vertes: deep-cupped, clean, semi-sweet, and wonderfully chewy and textured
Perle Blanche: long, high salinity, clean, very straightforward
Gillardeau: large, semi-salty, nutty, clean
Zeelande — Netherlands: savory, sweet, seaweed flavors
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HAMBURG: Rive Oyster Bar & Bistro
This is one of the most popular seafood restaurants in town. It is located on the harbor, a pleasant stroll from Landungsbrücken, part of Hamburg Harbor. It appears that oysters aren’t all that popular in Hamburg, but other seafoods remain popular. I was able to try a few varieties, one being from Germany. The French oysters were clearly superior, followed by the Irish, then trailed by the German variety. Perhaps it was just a coincidence that their oysters were sub-par. Though, I still come away with the notion: “Stick with the bratwurst and lemonade beer while here.”
Bouzigues — France, Étang de Thau: flat, chewy like a grape, delayed saltiness, taste of watermelon rind
Donegal — Ireland: farmed gigas, creamy white meat, earthy and slightly nutty, soft texture
Sylter Royal — Germany, Sylt: slim and thin meat, mild flavors, semi-salty, one note
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MOSCOW: The Big Bolshoi
Next to the famous Bolshoi Theater sits this new opulent, high-end, Michelin-star vying restaurant. The seats were made of supple, cocoa leather. According to this review, Ralph Lauren had something to do with the decoration. It came as a “nearby” recommendation from the concierge and had quite a different feel from our first night’s meal at Pushkin Cafe.
Perle Blanche: massive (nearly overflowing), crisp, creamy, sweet adductor muscle
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HONG KONG: Oyster Station and Mandarin Oriental Grill + Bar
After a 9+ hour red-eye from Moscow to HK, my Jakarta flight ended up being canceled by Cathay Pacific. The airline put us up in the airport hotel, but I wasn’t about to spend 15 hours there. So after a much needed nap, I met up with a few friends in the city. Coincidentally, Jeremy and Eric both enjoy oysters too and they knew just the spot to go. Oyster Station is a small (15-person) restaurant tucked away in SoHo (South of Hollywood). In addition to trying seven different beautiful bivalves, including my very first South African oyster, we also had crunchy geoduck sashimi and a pair of Tourteau (Sleepy) crabs. A male and female were both steamed and then chilled. The sweet meat was very enjoyable, but the roe and milt made the moment memorable. Especially watching the guys dig in as if they had no idea what they were eating.
Barron Point: fresh, little salinity, grain-flavored finish
Eagle Rock: minerally, deep flavors, soft butter-like texture
Namibia — South Africa: big, fat and creamy belly, nearly no salinity, punch of mineral flavor in back of throat
Tasmania: creamy, crisp, not sweet but has the ability to make other oysters taste sweeter
Speciales Gillardeau: enormous, tender, bold and rolling flavors, ultra sweet adductor muscle, packed with umami
Fines de Special: very mild, slightly acidic, no salinity
Kumamoto: deep-cupped, plump, clean, hint of melon
A few days later… Back for more! After a rather exhausting work day, I thought the best way to de-stress and unwind was to slurp down my favorite food. Heralded as one of the world’s best oyster bars, the Mandarin was certainly a place of fairytale bliss. The three-step amuse-bouche was elegant, charming, and oh-so-delicious. There was an international selection of maybe a ten, but the most interesting-looking one was sold out (from Denmark). Nonetheless, I managed to try a trio that were fantastic.
Whitley Bay — Great Britain: meaty but soft, balanced salinity, broth-like savoriness, slightly metallic
Smoky Bay — Australia: low salinity, faint copper tint, creamy inside with chewy skin, buttery
Galway Bay — Ireland: salty splash, pronounced steely-mineral flavors, jelly-like body, savory finish of seaweed
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JAKARTA: C’s Steak & Seafood
Located conveniently in my hotel, this modern restaurant showcased a wonderful balance of east and west details. We came across an enormous collection of wine stacked floor to ceiling at the entrance. Then next to it were various tanks of live fish (for eating, not for show) just like how they do it in the biggest seafood restaurants in mainland China. The open kitchen had a handful of white-coated chefs and an occasional burst of flame. The restaurant offered three types of fresh oysters: American, French and Australian. I opted to just try half a dozen of the Australian variety as an appetizer.
Sydney Rock: plump, cylindrical, shrunken mantle (as if it were cold), bold, pungent, deliciously fishy
The night before, I also tried some grilled oysters at Gyu-Kaku. They sat in a round tin of savory broth and were cooked for a few minutes above a hot charcoal grill at the table. The texture was firm and the salty, savory flavors really popped. It had no trace of the sea, however, but still retained minerality and nuttiness.
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I have never been disappointed at T8. In fact, it’s probably my favorite non-family-style restaurant in Shanghai. The ambiance is chic and relaxing, the food is impeccably crafted, and the cocktail selection is creative and vast. They feature daily specials that make use of the chef’s favorite fresh ingredients. On the night that I happen to drop by, they had an oyster on the menu– which I’ve discovered is quite rare for restaurants in Shanghai to possess.
Tasmania: creamy, plump, chewy mantle, medium salinity, fruity, sweet and clean finish
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TOKYO: Fish House Oyster Bar
Situated at a quiet intersection in Ebisu, a neighborhood in Shibuya ward and headquarters the Sapporo Breweries, this small restaurant was lively and bubbling with delicious smells of grilled fish, meats and beer. The oyster menu was nicely cataloged by location and seasonality. Each oyster was also pinpointed in red text on a outlined map of Japan. They also showcased the “off-season” offerings in black font, just to give you an idea of what’s available around the year. Note: I believe in Japan, they run all raw oysters through a purification process to ensure that they’re free of bacteria and parasites. This may have attributed to the slightly bland taste in some of the oysters.
Hamaichi — Miyagi: little salt with a fresh, clean taste, hint of cucumber in finish, firm and chewy, beautifully striped shells
Uramura — Mie: bold and briny, the saltiness is balanced with a slight mineral aftertaste, recommended
Senpoushi — Hokkaido: creamy, balanced salinity, rich in umami (like dashi), recommended
Maruemon — Hokkaido: plush white belly, savory, medium brininess and a hint of sweetness, rather large (3 inch body)
Magaemon — Hokkaido: little salt, but has a delicate vegetal flavor, very large (3+ inch body) and provocative shape
Tryana Bay — Ireland: a delicious saltiness that leaves the mouth craving for sweet, seaweed flavor, slightly nutty (cashews?)
Caviar — Australia, Pambula Lake: immediate hit of metallic tang, smoky, beautiful black-tipped shells
Pittwater — Australia: buttery, savory, mouthful flavor, low in salt, slight vegetal finish
St. Helens — Australia, Malting Bay: mild flavors with little salt, slightly vegetal, does not taste of the sea
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RIO DE JANEIRO: Satyricon
Despite it being a coastal city, seafood is not particularly popular in Rio. After asking several sources, seafood restaurants are quite rare here. Even at Satyricon, the most well-known high-end seafood restaurant, they only offered one variety of oyster. The waters in Rio may not be well-suited for oyster production, due to temperature or pollution. However, in other parts of Brazil, oysters are abundant and delicious. My taxi driver happened to like oysters and he recommended them with a drizzle of lime. Sure enough, wedges of lime arrived with my platter of a half dozen and I tried them like a local. Oh man, it was delicious. I would highly recommend trying as such with saltier varieties.
Santa Catarina / Rio Grande do Sul: very salty, balanced by sweetness, rocky minerality, plump, crisp, bean sprout flavor
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PARIS: Chez Flottes and Goumard
It seems as though one can not go wrong with getting oysters at any kind of establishment in the City of Lights. Oyster culture was alive and well here, despite being priced exceptionally high. At Chez Flottes, a traditional French brasserie near the Jardin des Tuileries, not only did they have fantastic oysters but also a killer Foie Gras burger. The ambiance was low-key, warm, and tourist-friendly (merci). The oysters were kept chilled outside, in front of the restaurant, while a dedicated shucker kept guard, crafted wondrously decadent seafood platters and casually enticed passerby’s to come in. Goumard was more upscale and filled with chic (yet slightly older) Parisians. Unfortunately, the oysters weren’t as carefully tended to. I found bits of shell in nearly every one, which was rather disappointing. Perhaps it would have been a different experience if we were downstairs at the oyster bar rather than in the upstairs dining room.
Creuse de Bretagne No. 5: small to med (1.5-2 inches), salty, rocky minerality, chewy dark beige meat
Speciales Gillardeau No. 2: large (3 inches), extremely savory, jelly-like texture, balanced sweet/saltiness, clean finish
Belon No. 2: petite and delicate meat, moderate salinity, metallic (coppery), woody and earthy
Speciales Gillardeau No. 5: aka “butterfly” oyster, super sweet, savory– miso/dashi flavors, beautiful white flesh
Saint Vaast la Hougue: sharp and somewhat harsh brininess, adductor muscle was easily removed, slightly nutty, cuc finish
Fines de Claire: long, creamy white belly, delicate, more subdued than St. Vaast, crisp
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DUBAI: The Terrace at Park Hyatt Dubai and Zuma
It was “Brazilian night” at The Terrance, an outdoor marina-side lounge that overlooked Dubai Creek and the futuristic Burj Khalifa-spiked skyline. Tropical vodka-infused cocktails were the specialty tonight and an energetic/upbeat playlist of samba-electro tunes streamed throughout the venue. An indoor bar displayed a family of various shellfish, including dozens of beautiful oysters on a bed of crushed ice. I ordered myself a Mango and Coriander Spiced cocktail and half a dozen oysters to enjoy. The oysters were presented on a ice-like platter, but there wasn’t actually any ice. Like in the EU, the bottom adductor muscle was left intact, but the jagged edges of all of the shells were also smoothed away to make handling a much more pleasant experience. Plus, the shucking was very well done as I didn’t encounter any bits of shell in any of the six that I had.
Zuma is an international contemporary Japanese gastropub, which I have experienced before in London. The food is exceptionally well crafted that’s balanced in boldness and subtlety. I didn’t know it at the time of making the reservation, but it just so happened that their specials of the night were oysters! Oyster sashimi or tempura– for me, that was a no brainer. The oysters arrived on crushed ice and garnished with ponzu, yuzu gelee, and spring onion. The flavor combination was sublime.
Fines de Claire No. 2: long and slender, intense salinity, creamy white belly, more metallic than the Spéciales
Spéciales de Claire No. 2: plump and succulent, sweet and a good balance of saltiness, earthy mollusk flavor
Prat ar Coum No. 3 — France, Brittany: firm white belly, soft and sweet, savory like miso soup, no liquor to be had
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I intend to bring back the tasting notes from Peek & Eat (as many of you have requested) in good time. It’s a lot to compile, but I think it will be worth it.