Thursday, April 13, 2006

My Spicy Epicurean Debauchery: Oysters and Food Writing

I read the NY Times often. Not just for the food stuff, but yes, the food section on Wednesdays does make the bump day go faster and better, I might say. I used to read it quite religiously, grasped onto every word written by Ruth Reichel. After her however, I find myself not very interested in the writings of her successors. (I think NYT has gone through 3 or 4 of them) From the rapid turnaround in the reporters, I think many other readers felt the same way that I did about the writings of its successors.

I wondered what made Ms. Reichel so popular, and why I liked her writings. After all, the point is the same - to offer insight into the restaurant under review, to deliver an observation of its services, to allow the reader imagine the taste of the dishes. Being NY Times, the critics that followed Ms. Reichel are all well versed, not only in the most obscure culinary ingredient but also in wines as well. So it's not like the information was vague or incorrect or anything…

What made Ms. Reichel different, to me, was her reference into her own personal memory. Be it her childhood experiences or her recent experience. She had a way of tying in every dish to her own experience - allowing the reader to reach into their own memories too. So instead of just explaining how perfectly the free-range chicken was roasted, she also pulled together a little bit of her own experience, making the explanation a little bit more personable.

With this in mind, allow me to write a little bit about my favorite dish here in New York City (

Wood Roasted Oysters with Shallots - $16.
verjus and herbs

I love oysters. They come in almost every culinary preparation method possible too! Raw, deep fried, grilled, poached, steamed, they come in various styles with endless condiments. My first introduction to the land of Oysters came when I was about 4. As surprising it is to many, I retain many memories of those days, before my family moved to Rochester, MN, and especially before that screaming little ball called the "little sister" was born.

At 4, I was barely old enough to go to any restaurants, and when we went to eat out back then, it was a quite a family affair, complete with all of my 3 cousins, my aunts and uncles, mom, dad, grandma, granddad. We will get a private tatami room all to ourselves and I had my own booster chair, lovingly named Kerochan. As I sat in the little pink Kerochan, I recall perfectly what the first bite of deep friend Oyster tasted like. Encrusted in crispy panko, it was just barely cooked enough so that a young child can eat it without being overcome by it's brininess. Still piping hot, as you bite in, warm sweet welcoming sweetness of its flesh combines well with the crunch of the panko. I used to eat a whole plate of it all by myself! And for many moons, this was my preferred way of eating oysters. Deep fried, covered in panko crust.

I encountered my first raw oysters………..I don't know. It must've been not so remarkable, as I cannot remember. (I do recall many "firsts" when it comes to pleasurable food experiences…) I've had many raw ones, yet I cannot give you the time when I had the "best". I recall eating a ton of them in New Orleans, as a sad attempt to over come a record set by some other patron. I recall ordering all sorts of different kinds of them in Blue Water Grill in an attempt to tell the difference between them all. But I cannot give you the moment I experienced the "best" raw oyster. And I've had quite a few.

O, don't get me wrong. I do enjoy them, and I do have occasional craving for them. The taste of the sea as they dance in your mouth. The sweet taste of its flesh as you slurp it down. I even enjoy the never ending routine and mandatory debate I usually have with my eating companions on Ponzu vs Yuzu vs Momiji Oroshi vs Lemon vs Horse Radish vs Cocktail Sauce as the perfect condiment. (Horse Radish & Yuzu for me, thx) But I don't have a perfect raw oyster moment.

Until I met this guy: "Wood Roasted Oysters with Shallots".

I've always thought that when done right, for certain seafood, a little heat can make already wonderful ingredient magnificent. I prefer flash grilled Toro over a completely raw one, for example. Heat can bring out more complex flavors, while eliminating some of the more unpleasant textures and scent of its raw form. So when I saw this on the menu, I immediately ordered it while most of my companions went for the raw version.

The 6 roasted oysters came all laid out pretty in a bed of extra coarse salt, just like the raw ones would come in a bed of crushed ice. The aromas raising from the open faced shells, brought memories of Robata Yaki and Tsuboyaki Sazae I used to enjoy when I was a little girl. "You like the food of a drunk!" my grandpa used to say - and I can hold quite a bit of alcoholic beverages as an adult.

The oysters were flash grilled, setting comfortably in its juices, slightly decorated with roasted shallots and chives. The plate came with wedges of lemons, but before I spared them with the lemon, I had to try it "au natural". I poked one with my fork, and was delighted to find out that they were roasted "shucked". I didn't have to worry about tearing thru its delicate flesh. "Be careful, they are hot" said the waiter. I looked at him like, "what, like my asbestos hands can't handle little oysters?" and proceeded to pick them up.

They were everything and more than I expected. It's flesh pudgy from the heat, let go of that good sweetness that only comes from being roasted. Since it was flash roasted, it also retained enough briny scent of the ocean, yet not as strong as the raw ones. Just enough to make me nostalgic and recall the pink Kero-chan booster chair. The roasted shallots and the white wine bath they relaxed in gave me a little kick, as if to confirm that I have moved on from my childhood's simple deep fried versions to rather sophisticated "wood roasted" versions.

As I finished the last warm treat, as the last crystalline sweetness evaporated into another part of my memory, I declared this as my favorite dish in NYC.


The Papa Bear said...

I'm having lunch at 10AM because of this post. :)

Amanda said...

I really love your blog. You are a great writer and definately have a way of drawing the reader in with you storytelling.

Laura Martone said...

As a New Orleans native, I have an affinity for all things oyster, and, though raw oysters with lime juice and oyster-artichoke soup are probably my preferred varieties, I'd love to try your favorite NYC dish some time. Thanks for sharing!