I’m always a little skeptical to find quality oyster bars in towns that aren’t near the ocean or a major airport, but Max’s Oyster Bar in Hartford, CT has reaffirmed that it’s indeed possible.
As much as I love the bustling urban life in New York City, I enjoy the occasional retreat up to my parents’ place in “rural” Connecticut for some peace, quiet, and mom’s amazing home cooking. I love my mom’s Chinese meals so much that I always insist on staying home to eat rather than dine out. After a little whimpering and wishlisting, my mom graciously obliges. However this past weekend our family had the opportunity to celebrate several big events (new jobs, my birthday, the new year, yadda) so I proposed that we go out for an all-encompassing celebratory meal.
The last time when I visited Max’s Oyster Bar, could barely tell a Beausoleil from a Barnstable. Now that my palette and eye has been sharpened, I figured that Max’s was worth another try. This old-world (read: deep burgundy leather booths and vintage prints) seafood gallery carried about seven or eight East Coast varieties ranging from PEI to Virginia. The ambiance inspired me to stick to a few classics such as the Wellfleets, Onsets and Conways and then I spontaneously topped it off with some Mayflower Points (thanks Shane of Upstate for solving the name/geography mystery for me) and Cape Cods.
By the way, I find oysters that are named after a BIG area — such as Cape Cod or Hood Canal — extremely confusing. WHERE in Cape Cod did you guys come from? Did it even matter to restaurant/seller/farmer? Was it East Cape Cod? South? What merroir am I actually experiencing here?? I actually ordered these ambiguous oysters, because I wanted to compare them to the Wellfleets. Did they taste at all the same? Completely different? Turned out that they were different but beyond that, I have no context as to how to evaluate them. So to the sellers of “Cape Cod Oysters” and (ahem) Max’s Oyster Bar, please try to be a little more specific with your product names. I guess this is coming from someone who knows (and cares) way too much about where her oysters come from. This is also, ironically, coming from someone who orders the house Pino at the wine bars and couldn’t care less about where it’s from.
Secondly — branded oysters vs unbranded. What really are the differences? Are Conways the same as Conway Cups? From my notes, it doesn’t seem like it but apparently they could be. Conway Cups are trademarked, whereas sellers can use the term Conway without problems. They may be indeed from the same waters, but grown by two different entities. There are also Conway Royales which are much larger (must try). Many thanks to Christopher Adams and Brady Hall for the tips!
Eating oysters with my parents is an amusing experience and especially because of my mom. When we were deciding how many oysters to order, she declared that she’d only eat two or three tops. Of course, she ended up stealing away five or six (because they were “so tasty.”) Now if I had known that she’d do this — which I should have — I would’ve ordered more. The oysters were all very much in visibly in their prime. The shells were filled with cool, briny liquor. The meat was firm, plump, and cream-colored. After the first two dozen, I called for another half dozen to cap my dad and I off, after hearing my mom declare that she wouldn’t have anymore. Not that it’s a big deal if she does, but I’d like to know in advance so that I can account for her AND my portion. Then she ate three more of the six. -_-
Wellfleet from Northeastern Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts * * * *
Flavor: 8 | Salinity: 9 | Sweetness: 6 | Umami: 5 | Texture: Firm, resilient, mushroomy
These oysters possessed a shockingly salty liquor that complimented the sweet, crisp meat
Onset from Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts * * * *
Flavor: 10 | Salinity: 9 | Sweetness: 8 | Umami: 8 | Texture: Pillowy, smooth, thick
Plump, creamy, a punctuation of brininess that trails with sweet, seaweed notes; the shells are splotchy gunmetal and green
Conway from Prince Edward Island, Canada * * *
Flavor: 7 | Salinity: 8 | Sweetness: 5 | Umami: 6 | Texture: Deep, pillowy, soft
These oysters were very briny and had a delicious miso soup savoriness to them
Mayflower Point from Dennisport, Massachusetts * * *
Flavor: 7 | Salinity: 5 | Sweetness: 5 | Umami: 6 | Texture: Gummy, silky
Medium brininess with an unmistakeable metallic undertone that was subtly bitter (like tea leaves), but nonetheless refreshing — quite the palette cleanser!
Cape Cod from Massachusetts * * *
Flavor: 8 | Salinity: 6 | Sweetness: 7 | Umami: 8 | Texture: Firm, elastic, plush
They don’t have the mouth-puckering saltiness of some other Cape Cod oysters like the Wellfleet, but it’s sweet soy flavors are undeniably bold and vibrant
Next up… an undercover assignment. Restaurants and kitchen staff beware.
Happy National Oyster Day! This is my second Oyster Day celebration and I’ve decided to go a bit bigger than last year. Seeing that the holiday is on a Friday, I decided to split my oyster fest into two segments: casual slurping at lunch and a more intense tasting for dinner. Below is a recap of how I celebrated and tips on how to make the most of your celebration.
For lunch, I met up with my buddy Chavelli at Fish, a low-key, neighborhood-y West Village seafood restaurant on Bleecker Street. They have one of the best oyster deals in town: 6 Blue Points plus a glass of wine (red/white) or PBR for $8! If you’re not looking for anything fancy, this deal really hits the spot. Even on their regular menu, the oyster prices are extremely reasonable. While they don’t have a huge selection (3-4 kinds daily), they’re priced at around $2 per piece. That’s what some restaurants charge during happy hour!
After work, my colleague Niyati and I headed down to Aquagrill for a more intense oyster experience. What I love about Aquagrill is that they really deliver on variety and shucking quality. Each piece is always cleanly opened and well presented. There’s no grit that gets in the way of the glorious slurping experience. We were seated at the corner spot at the bar by an open window. @AquagrillNYC happened to be in the house and dropped over to say hello. It was nice to put a face to the Twitter handle!
Niyati pretty much let me do the ordering. I was in the mood to try some new varieties, so we ended up selecting 8 kinds.
When it comes to tasting new oysters, I always order two to make sure that the taste is consistent. I also never use condiments. It’s too difficult to get a true sense of the oyster’s natural flavors when you add lemon or cocktail sauce on top.
Here are the oysters that were ordered and my tasting notes. I’m trying to “standardize” my ratings so that the oysters can be compared to each other. The scale that I’m using is a 10-point one, with 1 being the least intense (e.g., not salty whatsoever) and 10 being the most intense (e.g., extremely flavorful).
Blackberry Point from Northwest Prince Edward Island
Flavor: 6 | Salinity: 8 | Sweetness: 2 | Texture: Saggy, airy
Straightforward, sharp saltiness, thin meat, but clean finish
Conway Cup from Cascumpeque Bay, Prince Edward Island
Flavor: 4 | Salinity: 5 | Sweetness: 4 | Texture: Juicy, soft
Reminds me of raisins — salty and sweet, straightforward and clean finish
Wiley Point from Damariscotta River, Maine
Flavor: 8 | Salinity: 7 | Sweetness: 5 | Texture: Firm, chewy
Lingering sweetness through the body; crisp, vegetal finish
First Light from Mashpee, Massachusetts
Flavor: 5 | Salinity: 6 | Sweetness: 5 | Texture: Chewy, crisp
Slightly nutty, clean aftertaste; an oyster that is easy to eat a lot of
East Beach Blonde from Charlestown Pond, Rhode Island
Flavor: 8 | Salinity: 7 | Sweetness: 5 | Texture: Slightly thin, chewy
Earthy and savory tone; cured prosciutto or ham flavors
Komo Guay from Baynes Sound, British Columbia
Flavor: 7 | Salinity: 9 | Sweetness: 3 | Texture: Semi creamy, chewy
Lemon notes, little liquor; hard to get past the saltiness
Deer Creek from South Hood Canal, Washington
Flavor: 8 | Salinity: 3 | Sweetness: 2 | Texture: Ultra creamy
Deep cupped; earthy, minerality in the finish; buttery
Gold Creek from Hood Canal, Washington
Flavor: 4 | Salinity: 2 | Sweetness: 3 | Texture: Soft, ultra creamy
Buttery and crisp; mineral aftertaste that lingers for a long time on back of the tongue
I think from this bunch, I enjoyed the Wiley Point, First Light, and Gold Creeks the most.
So now you’re probably in the mood for some bivalves now right? If you’re a beginner to these mollusks and are wondering how to make the most out of your experience, there are some simple tips:
- Bring a buddy: it’s a lot more fun evaluating oysters with a friend or two. Sometimes you’ll taste very different things!
- Watch them shuck: oysters look exotic enough, but if you are able to watch the shuckers do their magic at the bar, that’s when it becomes really mesmerizing.
- Skip the sauce: don’t be shy about trying the oyster by itself. At restaurants, oysters will always arrive with an entourage of condiments, such as lemon, cocktail sauce, mignonette, or hot sauce. The best way to taste the flavors is by trying it naked (or with nothing on top).
- Look closely: examine the shell and the flesh! You’ll soon realize that not all varieties look the same. You can actually tell quite a lot about the oyster based on its appearance.
- Chew: don’t just swallow the damn thing! Chew the meat to extract the sweetness and unlock hidden flavor complexities.
- Order 3-6 varieties: make sure to sample at least one from each coast; ordering more than 6 varieties at a time might make it confusing to keep track (we ordered 4 types first, followed by another 4).
What are some rituals or rules that you follow while enjoying oysters?
Decadent ingredients, flawless execution, and gorgeous presentation. The New York Oyster Lovers dinner at DBGB Kitchen & Bar was truly an unforgettable (and undoubtedly enviable) experience. Executive Chef Jim Leiken put together an incredible menu for our group, which featured four different varieties of oysters–including the ultra-rare Wild Maine Belon–in four very distinctive, yet harmonious courses.
Shigoku Oysters with Lemongrass Veloute and Hackelback Caviar. While I loved everything that was served, this was probably my favorite course. It was both decadent and springtime-fresh. It also brought me back to my childhood. No, lemongrass was NOT part of my childhood. Except the flavors and creaminess reminded me of Fruit Loops in milk. I confessed my bizarre palette-connection to Chef Leiken and he confirmed a similar impression.
Wild Maine Belon Oyster with Black Bean Sauce and Ramps. Another dish that reminded me of my childhood–and no, it’s not related to cereal. Black bean sauce is a staple in Chinese cuisine and so this dish harkened back to plates of whole steamed fish and manila clams.
Sweetbread and Nini-Moto Vol-Au-Vent served with Crayfish, Chicken Oysters, Mousseron Spring Peas, and Sauce Americaine. I loved the gently poached (?) oysters that were hidden inside the delicate vol-au-vent puff pastry. The sweetbread and chicken oysters added a bit of playful novelty to the dish, which inevitably stirred up an interesting conversation about exotic foods.
Whole Roasted Peking Duck with Pacific Oyster & Sourdough Stuffing, Local Asparagus. Now this was when the rest of the DBGB dining room realized that we were getting the VIP treatment. Our waiter brought out a wooden board that supported two perfect roast ducks that sat on top of a bed of dry oyster shells. We ooh’ed and ahh’ed, while our neighbors looked on with food-envy. Once the full presentation was applauded, the duck was sent back to the kitchen. Chef Leiken carved the birds up and the plated them generously over a bed of hearty stuffing.
With Lemongrass Veloute and Hackleback Caviar
Wild Maine Belon Oyster
With Black Bean Sauce and Ramps
Sweetbread and Nini-Moto Vol-Au-Vent Served with Crayfish, Chicken Oysters, Mousseron Spring Peas, and Sauce Americaine
Whole Roasted Pekin Duck
Pacific Oyster & Sourdough Stuffing, Local Asparagus
While I don’t publish every bit of minutia of my oyster experiences, I do try to capture “the good stuff” using photography. Here are some of the most memorable, eye-candy moments of the several past months… plus some tips to enhance your next oyster experience!
Connoisseur Tip #1: If you’re ordering more than six oysters at a time, make sure to request an oyster ticket so you know exactly which one is what. Unless if you have a photographic memory, this will help you sort out which ones you prefer.
International (African, Australian, European) oysters at Oyster Station, HK
Connoisseur Tip #2: How to eat an oyster like a pro? Hint: it doesn’t involve that dinky cocktail fork. If the oyster is shucked properly, the meat will slip off the shell with a simple tilt (45 degree) of the shell. Many novices and amateurs will pluck the oyster out with a fork–often stabbing it straight through its delicate belly. Although it might be a cleaner and neater experience, don’t give in! It’s a far better and sexier experience to lift the shell to your lips, drink the cool liquor, and slide the meat into your mouth (use a bit of tongue if needed–wisdom that applies to many subjects). If the oyster is stuck to the shell, it’s a sign that either the oyster is not very fresh or the shucker didn’t do their job properly.
Just to caveat, this method doesn’t apply very well in France and other parts of Europe where they practice leaving the bottom adductor muscle still intact to prolong “freshness.” For those situations, use a fork (or spoon) to separate the adductor muscle from the shell.
Connoisseur Tip #3: After slurping down the oyster, turn the shell cup side up on your plate. It gives you an opportunity to study the beautiful patterns on the back. I think it just generally looks more elegant on the platter that way. Plus, there’s a lot to learn about from its unique characteristics. To learn more, check out my post about shells!
Connoisseur Tip #4: Avoid using the cocktail sauce that inevitably comes with all oyster platters. It’s overpowering and unnecessary. Save it for the cocktail shrimp. Try a few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice or tangy mignonette sauce instead. Or to give it a minimalistic kick, grind a dash of fresh black pepper on top. Pro’s and purists will leave the oyster naked–no seasoning needed. That’s the only way to appreciate the oyster’s true flavors and nuances.
Connoisseur Tip #5: Learn how to shuck oysters. I’ve collected a bunch of videos on YouTube that show you how. You’ll be able to enjoy more (and cheaper) oysters at home AND impress your date. Remember: practice makes perfect. It use to take me nearly a minute to open one oyster. Now, I can crack almost any open and have it ready for half shell presentation in 10-15 seconds.
Last, but not least (although not technically an oyster…), a fantastic Ipswich Fried Clam Belly Roll at New Amsterdam Market
Connoisseur Tip #6: When ordering oysters at an oyster bar abroad–say Bentley’s Oyster Bar in London for example–you might encounter different numbers, or grades, associated with each variety. No. 00′s are the largest (and most expensive) and scale all the way down to No. 4 or 5. The smaller oysters aren’t necessarily worse off. From experience, I’d generally would say that the smaller the oyster, the more potent the flavor. It might be less refined at times, but definitely worth a try. “Native” oysters are also wild-caught, whereas “Rock” oysters are farmed.
Veni, vidi, vici: we came, we saw, we conquered (the oysters).
Now over 150 members strong, the New York Oyster Lovers Meet Up group has made their mark on some of the most well-known oyster establishments in town. Wonderful gastronomic memories and friendships have already blossomed through this bivalve-enthusiasts club and this year is going to be even better. I have to give major props to Nellie–our fearless Meet Up group leader–for another successful and informative event.
To start the year off right, our first meeting was held at the swanky subterranean boathouse known as Lure Fishbar. Executive Chef Josh Capon and Chef de Cuisine Ryan Schmidtberger put their heads together a month in advance to devise a sensational five-course tasting featuring select East and West coast oysters. The finished menu exhibited an elegant progression from delicate to hearty, and each course also played to the strengths of the particular oyster being used. Ryan was a wonderful host and tried to be as present as possible, despite the unexpectedly busy restaurant shift. Josh (and possibly his lobster buddy) would have been with us as well, but he was on his way back from some envious tropical vacation destination that night.
Nellie will soon be enjoying her days as a new mom and needed a temporary replacement. I am happy and honored to help out a good friend, so stay tuned for some exciting events in the near future. “You have very large shoes to fill,” were the parting words from a fellow attendee.
In the meantime, check out the highlights of the dinner at Lure below.
First Course: raw oysters served on the half shell over ice
Start at the bottom of the plate and work your eyes up counter-clockwise. Three kinds of oysters were presented: one left naked and second piece enhanced with the chef’s special touch.
Kumamoto (WA) with Jalepeno and Ponzu
Beausoleil (New Brunswick) with Meyer Lemon Granita
Point Judith (RI) with Pineapple and Cucumber salsa
Any In A Half Shell regular knows that I’m a purist at heart: I prefer to have my oysters in the buff– no citrus, sauce or spices needed. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the garnishes used to dress these oysters. The Point Judith with Pineapple and Cucumber salsa was a genius combination. The salsa’s sweet and grassy tang smoothed over the bold, briny liquor that Point Judith’s are famous for, which allowed you to fully explore the rich savoriness of the meat.
Second Course (Part One): Fried Blue Point oyster with graham cracker crust, tartar sauce, and thai slaw
Next came two cooked oysters on the half shell laid in a ying yang fashion on a plate that was loosely threaded with seaweed and watercress. The first oyster was a classic Blue Point that was topped with a dab of tartar sauce and perched atop a bed of pickled julienned veggies. The crumbly, cracker coating added good texture to the otherwise soft oyster, but the scattered slaw was a little difficult to eat elegantly.
Second Course (Part Two): Fried Fanny Bay oyster with potato tempura, fine herb aioli, caviar, and smoked salmon
I loved the micro bursts of saltiness from the caviar against the smoked salmon and enjoyed the taste of this fried oyster more than the previous one. The deeper and wider valve also cupped the oyster better, so that it was easy to pop into my mouth.
Third Course: Shibumi oyster stew with potato-leek broth, bacon, and fried shallots
This was my favorite cooked course of the night. When raw, the plump Shibumi exudes a delicate, smoky flavor, but it gives off an entirely different persona once poached. The once-ultra-creamy texture firms up slightly to that of an over-medium egg and the flavor is robust and earthy. The crispy, aromatic shallots also energized the velouté by changing up the texture. My only wish was that the stew would have contained twice as many oysters. That’s probably being a little greedy, but I really couldn’t get enough of them!
Fourth Course: Roasted stuffed chicken with Kusshi oyster stuffing, potato puree, and foie gras sauce
I struggled to distinguish the flavor of the oyster in the stuffing, but it was still a good dish nonetheless. It showcased the versatility of the ingredient more than anything, which is appreciated in a tasting course (and to win in The Next Iron Chef).
Fifth Course: Tapioca pearls and sorbet: coconut, tangerine, and pineapple
I am always down for anything with tapioca pearls (e.g., bubble tea), so this dessert was a shoe-in.
If you want to be part of the fun next time, join the group! It’s free to sign up and a great way to meet others who share the same gusto for eating amazing food.
Lure also has a great 5-7PM Happy Hour from Monday-Friday featuring a list of bar snacks including $1.50 oysters and $10 oyster shooters (4pcs).
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142 Mercer St
Nearest subway: N, R Prince St / B, D, F, M Broadway-Lafayette