Table Talk

Down the Hatch: A Newbie's Guide to Eating Oysters in New York City

We hooked up with our in-house expert, Tom Russell-Lynch of The Standard Grill, to slurp up Oyster 101—from the history and health benefits to proper protocol and pairings. (He also told us the meaning of life).
THE STANDARD: From a culinary perspective, and for those who might be somewhat hesitant, can you try to define the appeal of raw oysters? 
TOM RUSSELL-LYNCH: Oysters are perhaps the purest expression of the sea outside of the sea. When eating an oyster, you get the true flavor of the ocean and the minerals that make up the oyster bed. Also, oysters’ flavor profiles can be transformed when paired with lemon, mignonette, cocktail sauce, or a glass of an effervescent white wine. They’re fun to eat, delicious, and make for an interactive dining experience with great variety in their textures and flavors.
What is the origin of eating raw oysters as we know it today?
New York City used to be the place to eat oysters in the United States. When Henry Hudson and the Dutch first arrived in Manhattan during the 17th century, the island was covered in oyster beds. Oysters were a treat that the Dutch, as well as the native Lenape Indians, thoroughly enjoyed. As more settlers came in and New York grew, so did oyster consumption. By the 19th century, the oyster beds found in New York Harbor were the largest worldwide. In the city itself, you could get raw oysters from street vendors. This oyster obsession caused mass destruction, and by 1906, New Yorkers had eaten just about every oyster. Today, there has been a strong push to revitalize the oyster beds in the Hudson River.
How has the world of raw oysters changed in the last century? 
In the early part of the 20th century, oysters were widely accessible, and therefore, inexpensive. However, World War I depleted oyster beds around the country, resulting in a steep rise in prices. Oysters became prohibitively expensive for all but the upper class. Oysters in America today are commonly prepared as a special dish, and can be expensive, although more and more we are seeing $1.00 oyster specials popping up in New York City and around the country (including the Standard Grill on our Midday Menu) making oysters more accessible than ever.
What is the right season to eat oysters? 
EVERY SEASON! You will hear silly sayings like “Don’t eat oysters in months that have an “R” in them” or “Don’t eat oysters in months that end in “Y””.  I have eaten oysters in EVERY season and always enjoy them. Sure, sizes of oyster may vary and the oyster may be in spawning season, but this doesn’t make them any less delicious. 
What’s the appropriate place for oysters in a dining experience? 
At the top of your dining experience before hot appetizers and entrees. Oysters are so decadent and have such layered, fresh flavors. You want your palate to be clean when enjoying oysters, free of spices and fat. Only then can you truly get the full experience and discover your favorites.  
What’s the proper way to eat a raw oyster? 
This is up for debate. I like to dress my oyster up a bit, loosen the oyster from the shell with my fork, and then tip the oyster into my mouth by way of my bottom lip. I’ve seen many people guide the oyster into their mouth with the oyster fork, as well as using the fork to pick up the oyster, without ever having the shell touch the oyster eater’s mouth. Then there is the oyster shooter: drop the oyster into a shot glass, add in your spirit of choice (usually vodka or tequila), add a dash of bloody mary mix, and bottoms up! 
Can you explain the difference between East Coast and West Coast oysters?
East Coast oysters tend to have more salinity to them—i.e. they carry more of the “liquor” (sea water) in their
“cup”. East coast oysters also tend to be larger (but not always). West Coast oysters tend to have a creamier flavor to them. Many people say they have a “grassy” quality, and they’re much more mild when it comes to salinity.  Many people trying oysters for the first time tend to enjoy the West Coast oyster more, as the flavor profile is not as pungent.
What is the appropriate way to garnish? 
Again, this is up to the oyster eater. Purists want to taste the full flavor of the oysters, so NO dressing up for them. I tend to dress my oyster up a bit. My favorites are a good mignonette (red wine vinegar, minced shallot, and fresh cracked black pepper) or a cocktail sauce that’s heavy on the horseradish. 
The availability of oysters has exploded. Any guidelines for where and when to indulge? 
There are so many places in NYC that have strong oyster programs. However, if I’m on the hunt for a cheap oyster, I hit up an oyster happy hour (The Standard Grill, Narcissa, and narcbar all have them). In restaurants that have a strong oyster program, I always take into account how full the restaurant is during their Oyster Happy Hour. It’s a good indication of the freshness of the oysters being served and the quality of the shuck.   
Pair an oyster with a shot, a cocktail, a beer, and a wine…
Shot: I would combine the two in an oyster shooter! Vodka, Bloody Mary Mix, Oyster, Lemon on the side.
Cocktail:  An Aperol Spritz
Beer:  The rich chocolate flavors of a stout pairs really nicely with the saltiness of the oyster.
Wine: Muscadet or Txakoli, anything with an effervescent quality to keep the palate awake between oysters.  
What’s the most interesting oyster you’ve eaten? 
I’m a sucker for the Shibumi. Shibumi oysters were designed with New York qualities and cultivated in Puget Sound. They are deeply cupped, and have plump sweet meats, well-balanced saltiness, and a distinctive smoky finish. 
I first had a Shibumi in the summer of 2009, and I’ve been hooked ever since—I never met a Shibumi I didn’t like.
Does eating oysters have any health benefits? 
Oysters pack a wallop of zinc, which is great for making you feel good and keeping your energy up. Not only does the zinc boost your sex drive, but it also ups your immune system and helps get rid of acne and makes your bones stronger!
What’s the meaning of life? 
Life has no meaning, so eat oysters and enjoy the ride!

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