If a restaurant is serious about its oysters, chances are the descriptions on the menu read like wine-tasting notes.
There are words like citrusy, fruity and vegetal, with an aftertaste of cucumber, seaweed, melon or even bitter walnut. One has a mineral finish while another is mysterious, smoky or rich.
Depending on the season, water temperature or weather conditions, their meatiness and the salinity of the liquor may vary.
“Terroir is something we’ve used in wine,” says Sheila Lucero, referring to a vineyard’s soil, topography and climate. “You can think of ‘merroir’ as a term, meaning oysters take on the characteristics of exactly where they are from.”
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Lucero is the corporate executive chef for Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar, a small chain of sustainable-seafood restaurants based out of Denver, with a location on the Country Club Plaza. She recently gathered her kitchen and wait staff for Oysters 101. The tutorial included history, anatomy, nutrition, seasonality, geography and marketing terms. The subtitle of Lucero’s eight-page handout: “Your guide to knowing, lovin’ and sellin’ those slimy guys.”
Because diners are slurping raw oysters with ever greater gusto.
“We’re in an oyster boom,” says Jacquie Brockhoff, a sales manager for Seattle Fish Co., a 99-year-old, Denver-based company with a state-of-the-art, 30,000-square-foot distribution center in Riverside. It serves 500 restaurants and grocery stores in six Midwestern states.
The company sold 1 million pounds of oysters last year.
Ayrick Madeira, owner of the newly opened Mass St. Fish House & Raw Bar in Lawrence, recently pulled out his cellphone and scanned a list of 75 types.
“I feel like oyster bars are popular on the coasts, and that’s why we wanted to get out in front of the trend,” says Madeira, who spent two years as a salesman for Northeast Seafood Products.
So far, oysters from Hama Hama Seafood Co. in Washington are Madeira’s favorite. He recently toured the fifth-generation, family-run oyster and clam farm. While at the farm, he went out in hip waders and a headlamp at low tide to see exactly where the oysters grow.
The experience made Madeira eager to sample more: “We’re still feeling it out as to customers’ preferences. Honestly, we’ve been trying everything. We don’t want to settle in with just six oysters.”
Part of an oyster’s varied flavor profile is due to its gills, which filter up to 50 gallons of water of day. The surrounding environment — the plankton, algae, water temperature, time of year and nutrients, as well as pollution — affect their flavor.
Environmentalists refer to oysters as a “keystone species”: If they’re unable to filter, the ecosystem quickly becomes off kilter. Farming ventures have helped bring the oyster back to the table.
When the first colonists arrived on the East Coast, there was an abundance of oyster reefs. Early settlers were initially turned off by oysters but changed their minds as food supplies dwindled. Over-harvesting and pollution nearly killed off wild oysters, but farm-raised enterprises have returned oysters to one of the most sustainable options from the sea.
While many restaurants serve generic “oysters,” without referring to their place of origin, as a happy hour special, an increasing number of restaurants are catching on to the geography and farming practices that shape each oyster’s unique flavor profile.
Worldwide, more than 90 percent of oysters are farmed, starting with larvae known as a “spat” that attach to a hard surface (sometimes other oysters) to begin growing a shell. Some growers start the spat in tanks on land away from predators, eventually transferring them in racks, bags or cages to coastal inlets until harvest.
There are five species of oyster cultivated in the U.S.: the Eastern (or crassostrea virginica) is native to the North American Atlantic coast; the Pacific (or crassostrea gigas); the Kumamoto, originally from Japan; the rare European flat; and the half-dollar-sized Olympia, native to the West Coast but pushed toward extinction during the Gold Rush. Each species has many individual types.
Eastern oysters tend to have rounder, flatter shells. Pacific oysters tend to have more ridges and fluted cups because of the more turbulent waves of the Pacific. But oyster farmers may periodically tumble Eastern oysters to create a deeper cup.
In the wild, Eastern oysters take about three years to mature. Pacific oysters grow twice as fast as Eastern and four times as fast as Kumamotos, Olympias and European flats. However, farming techniques are helping to speed up the process.
“The cool thing about oysters is you can manipulate them,” Lucero says.
Jax offers a proprietary Emersum oyster raised by Rappahannock Oyster Co. Conservation efforts by the oyster company are credited as an important part of bringing back the health of Chesapeake Bay. Their farmed oysters meet maturity at 18 months.
As Emersums are raised sustainably and in a very precise merroir, they result in an oyster that is consistent in size, taste, texture and liquor. “The Emersum speaks to everybody,” Lucero says. “That’s by design. We wanted it to be an oyster for people who are scared of oysters.”
It’s Michael Kinchen’s job at Jax to shuck a variety of oysters in all sizes and shapes for guests. After six months he has become adept at finding the hinge that pops the chest open to reveal its meaty treasure. The finesse of the job is making sure not leave shell behind — Golden Points, for instance, come with fragile shells that can “crumble in your hand” — or spill the precious briny liquor.
He’s a fan of the Pemaquid, an Eastern oyster from Maine’s Damariscotta River that has a white and purple shell he deems worth collecting.
On a busy night, Kinchen can shuck 1,200 Emersums.
“The amount of oysters that come through here,” Kinchen says, shaking his head in disbelief as he preps for the brisk business on Valentine’s Day. “I have gained the greatest respect for the ocean and water. Before I got here, I didn’t realize there was more than one type of oyster.”
Refrigerated air and ground transportation make it possible to harvest oysters at 7 a.m. and deliver them in time for dinner the next night. When boxes or net bags of oysters arrive at Jax, the kitchen staff scrubs them down, sorts them into tubs and covers them with a clean dish towel to “nap” in a cooler until needed on the raw bar.
A carefully curated list — averaging 10 types of oysters a night — is spelled out on a chalkboard. Historically oysters have been named for their geographic locations, such as Irish Point, Olympia or Avery. But more recently farmers have been giving their oysters catchier, PG-rated names, like Naked Cowboy or French Kiss.
“I feel like there are so many new oysters, and I’m always trying to keep up,” Lucero says. “But if it gets more people to eat oysters, great.”
Tips for ordering oysters
March is Oyster Month at Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar. For every Emersum oyster shucked, money will be donated to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. All month long, Jax will pour Emersum Oyster Stout by local Cinder Block Brewery. And there’s an oyster-eating contest. For more info, visit jaxfishhouse.com.
How to order: Most raw bars post a daily menu. To sample various flavor profiles, choose an assortment of East and West Coast varieties. To taste, start with the mildest flavored oyster and work up to the strongest, as you would in a wine-tasting.
Easy-eating varieties: Emersum. Also Kusshi and Kumamoto: “I like the petite size and melon finish,” executive chef Sheila Lucero says.
More challenging varieties: Belon. “Once you like them, you crave them. For me, it has this coppery thing going on,” Lucero says. But ultimately, “everything depends on what you like. It’s totally subjective.”
To chew or not to chew: “It’s dealer’s choice,” says Theresia Ota, chef de cuisine at Jax. “I’m not going to tell you how to eat your oysters.” But Eastern oysters have a toughness that stands up to chewing and plays on the brininess. Pacific oysters tend to be more delicate.
Fact vs. folklore: Have you ever heard the saying to avoid eating oysters in months that end in “r”? Thanks to another r — refrigeration — oysters are safe to consume year-round.
To sauce (cocktail, Tabasco, mignonette or horseradish) or not to sauce: “There is no wrong way to do it,” Lucero says, but if you’re trying an oyster you’ve never tried before and want to understand its flavor, go “naked” or with a squeeze of lemon.