Winter is the perfect time to savor Santa Monica’s oyster offerings
By Jacqueline Fitzgerald
Very few foods can truly claim to be a frisson of taste and texture. But oysters can, easily. Haters don’t appreciate the allure of these slightly mysterious bivalves, dismissing them as fleshy live blobs floating on a half-shell. For others, however, it’s culinary bravura by way of the sea. Eating raw oysters is part of a long tradition – humans have been slurping them down for thousands of years.
If you’re curious, why wait? Oysters are at their finest in winter weather and they’re a celebratory food. Nineteenth century Irish immigrants made eating oyster stew on Christmas Eve an American holiday tradition, Southerners and others far from the Eastern Seaboard turned the seafood dish into a decadent yuletide delicacy, and now some choose to kick off the New Year with a healthful bowl of bivalves.
“This is the best time of year to eat oysters,” says expert and author Rowan Jacobsen. “It’s a way to fall in love with the coast.”
Granted, it can be confusing to know what you’re ordering. There isn’t much consistency in terminology – oyster titles listed on menus could derive from their species name (English or Latin), water of origin, brand or farm name. It’s worth educating yourself and asking your server questions to ascertain exactly what’s on offer.
“You don’t know for sure what you’re getting without knowing the source,” says Todd Rubenstein, head of West Coast operations at Blue Island Oyster Co. The company supplies about 135 restaurants in Southern California. “You can always ask to see the tag.”
Raw oysters should always be freshly shucked and served on ice, immediately after being opened. Be sure they smell ocean-fresh and have plenty of “liquor” or natural juice. Never eat an oyster that looks dry. Sip the juice, chew the oyster and swallow; put the shell back on the platter, round side up.
There are five species of oysters we eat, but hundreds of varieties. Most of the oysters served in restaurants are Eastern/Crassostrea virginica (such as Malpeque, Blue Point and Wellfleet; these names come from places) and Pacific/Crassostrea gigas. Pacific oysters have rougher shells and tend to be
less briny than Eastern oysters.
A few examples of Pacific oysters include Kusshi (Japanese for ultimate) from British Columbia and Hama Hama, which gets its moniker from a shellfish farm on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Another popular choice is Kumamoto (Crassostrea sikamea), which, like the Pacific, is originally from Japan. Kumamoto’s small size and slightly sweet flavor make it a favorite for beginners and experts.
Less commonly served is the European Flat (Ostrea edulis). The most famous is Belon, named after the French river. Generally speaking, they are an acquired taste because of their coppery flavor. Those sourced from Maine taste quite different than their French counterparts.
The Olympia (Ostrea lurida), a small oyster with big taste, is the only oyster native to America’s West Coast.
Regardless of species, all oysters boast an impressive nutritional profile – packing protein, iron, vitamins and minerals, such as zinc. Are they an aphrodisiac?
“Absolutely,” says Rubenstein.
You might be surprised at the depth and diversity of choice, so here’s some background information and ideas for sampling in Santa Monica.
Oysters 101 @ Water Grill
A great place to get schooled in oyster tasting is Water Grill’s famous raw bar. The elegant dining spot with views of the Pacific features 16 to 18 oysters on a daily basis, cycling through about 115 varieties by the end of the year. Visit often enough and you’ll have sampled a wide-ranging curriculum.
1401 Ocean Ave. | (310) 394-5669; watergrill.com
Find a Pearl @ Santa Monica Seafood Market & Café
At Santa Monica Seafood Market & Café, founded in 1939, you can nosh at the oyster bar, then do a little shopping. During happy hour, shucked oysters are $2. The bar features at least four varieties daily; Compass Point from Samish Bay, Wash. is a special treat.
1000 Wilshire Blvd. (310) 393-5244; smseafoodmarket.com
The World is Your Oyster @ The Lobster
The Lobster’s dinner menu currently lists the following oysters: Stellar Bay (British Columbia), Kiwi Cups (New Zealand), Point Lookout (Virginia) and Plymouth Rock (Massachusetts). During happy hour, you can order oysters of the day for $2 each — not a bad way to eat your way around the world.
1602 Ocean Ave., | (310) 458-9294; thelobster.com
Happy as a Clam @ Blue Plate Oysterrette
Since its opening in 2009, Blue Plate Oysterette has attracted a loyal following with its cozy-chic clam shack vibe. On a daily basis, Blue Plate offers four to six varieties from each coast. Want a half-dozen, raw, grilled or crispy, for $10? Stop by for the daily Oyster Hour (4 to 6 p.m. with drink specials, too). The combination is sure to send you to your happy place.
1355 Ocean Ave. | (310) 576-3474; blueplateoysterette.com
Wine & Dine @ Herringbone
Or try Herringbone’s Oyster Hour (4 to 7 p.m.). Each day, a different oyster – say Blue Point or Kumiai, a California mainstay from Baja – is on special for $1 each at the Ocean Avenue spot. The Guy Saget Muscadet wine ($32) is a lovely accompaniment.
1755 Ocean Ave. | (310) 971-4460; herringboneeats.com
Live Large @ Enterprise Fish Co.
Enterprise Fish Co., housed in a historic 1917 brick building, hosts an inviting happy hour with $1.75 oysters on the half shell (lately they’ve been spotlighting Kumiai) as well as oyster shooters with vodka or tequila. On Wednesdays, the oysters are just a buck. Now that’s something to celebrate!
174 Kinney St. | (310) 392-8366; enterprisefishcosantamonica.com