Briny. Sweet. Metallic. Powerful. These aren’t adjectives describing an underwater robot, but tasting notes for one of life’s great gourmet experiences: oysters.
As M.F.K. Fisher famously wrote in 1941, consider the oyster. They are savored broiled, baked, roasted, stewed and fried (each method having its charms) but eating them on the half shell—eating them alive—is the best way to experience their magic.
A simple creature, the majestic mollusks come in a dizzying array of styles, each one a barometer of the waters in which they live. Dining on oysters from pristine waters (such as Island Creeks from Duxbury Bay, Massachusetts, or Hog’s Island oysters from Tomales Bay in California) delivers a pristine and revelatory dining experience. As with cigars, oysters have their own personality, and one can sample various types and take notes on the differences. Compare the creamy sweetness of a dainty kumamoto, say, with the mild taste of a Blue Point or the briny kick of an Olde Salt from the Chesapeake Bay.
Oysters have been enjoyed around the world for ages, particularly in New York City, which once boasted oyster beds more vast than any in the world. Native Americans feasted on them long before Europeans settled Manhattan, leaving behind piles of shells known as middens. The new settlers quickly took up the shucking knife and made piles of their own.
“I’m an oyster fanatic,” says cigarmaker Carlos Fuente Jr., who can eat dozens at a sitting. “They taste like the ocean. And there’s nothing else like them.”
While the waters around Manhattan are no longer the oyster cradles they were in the past, the city itself is home to one of the world’s greatest oyster restaurants—the Grand Central Oyster Bar, which has a master list of 150 different varieties, with 25 to 30 of them available at any one time. Executive chef Sandy Ingber says he will go through 3,000 a night—not including those that are cooked or served in stews. “During the holiday season,” he says, “this could double.”
Few experiences can rival taking a seat away from the crowd at the Oyster Bar’s long counter, enjoying that first sip of an icy martini and watching your waiter deliver a freshly shucked dozen oysters. A drop of Tabasco and a quick slurp, and all is right in the world.