STUART FORSTER HEADS TO NEW YORK AND DELVES INTO THE LONG-ESTABLISHED TRADITION OF EATING OYSTERS IN USA’S BIGGEST CITY.
For urban travellers of the modern age, oysters are not merely food, they are symbolic of luxury and provide moments of epicurean delight. A plate of oysters and a glass of wine is a delicious afternoon or evening pleasure. Does anywhere in the world come close to matching New York City for the variety of oysters served?
Many jetsetters are surprised to learn there’s nothing new about enjoying oysters in New York. Early Dutch settlers of Nieuw Amsterdam, the city’s former name, claimed the waters around Manhattan held oysters as large as one foot (30 centimetres) across. Archaeological evidence has proven those claims are not as far-fetched as modern foodies might imagine. Analysis of shell piles, known as middens, have proven that it really was possible to acquire oysters measuring between eight to ten inches (20 to 25 centimetres) when Europeans first settled on land around the waterways that we know today as the East and Hudson Rivers. These days you won’t find them that big in the restaurants and oyster bars of New York, but the city remains one of the best places on the planet to enjoy oysters. Where else could you order a couple of Naked Cowboys (an oyster variety cultivated in waters off Long Island), alongside Skookums (from Washington State) and Yaquinas (from Oregon)? They count among the many North American varieties you can find on menus in the city’s raw bars.
Chefs from the New York’s many restaurants rise early to source their seafood from Fulton Fish Market, at Hunts Point in the Bronx. The famous market relocated in 2005 after over 180 years of business on the Lower East Side. Only Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market is larger, meaning New York’s restaurateurs can take their pick from an array of oysters. They are sourced from the waters of North America and, depending on the season and availability, from countries in the southern hemisphere.
Much has changed since the Dutch first dined on oysters in North America. In the clear estuary water of the pre-industrial age, oysters were in plentiful supply in the Hudson River. The Lenape people, who occupied the region prior to European settlement, disposed of empty shells in heaps. One such midden resulted in the naming of Pearl Street.
Despite that name, there’s no danger of you finding a valuable, lustrous pearl when you eat local oysters in New York—you’ll have to head to Tiffany’s, or one of the city’s other jewellery stores, if that’s what you’re seeking. Contrary to popular belief, American or eastern oysters—a species of bivalve molluscs known to naturalists by the taxonomic name, Crassostrea virginica—do not produce shining pearls. Occasionally, though, they do yield small, brownish pearls of negligible worth.
Despite marked variations in shape, size and flavour, all oysters harvested from American waters are members of the same species. The temperature and nutrients within the water in which they live are factors that influence the appearance and taste of oysters. It’s a phenomenon that aficionados refer to as the merroir. Just as the terroir, influenced by the local soil and climate, proves a key factor in forming the character and taste of wine from a particular vineyard, merroir accounts for the differences in flavour and form between oyster varieties.
Famously, in A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, the prolific Victorian author, described his miserly character, Ebenezer Scrooge as “solitary as an oyster”. Oysters, however, tend to live together in vast communities of males and females known as beds or reefs. Gathering together maximises the likelihood of their successful reproduction when they spawn. Ironically, anybody walking into an oyster bar and ordering just one oyster might themselves be thought of as something of a miser. Single oysters can indeed be ordered in many of New York’s dining establishments—after all, the adage that “customer is king” reigns true. Oysters are listed according to their variety on daily menus and prices relate to a single, shucked oyster. Yet it’s far more common to order a halfdozen or dozen at a time.
Gourmets might argue that a chilled glass of delicate white wine or a flute of Champagne is the ideal accompaniment to a plate of oysters. However, North America’s craft beer revolution has brought about a paradigm shift in thinking. The popularity of beer is growing. Stout has long been considered ideal for pairing with oysters on the west coast of Ireland and people further afield are being convinced the Irish have a point
on the matter. Citrusy India Pale Ales—known in New York by their acronym, IPA— tend to feature crisp, hoppy finishes that are regarded as complementary to the flavour of some oyster varieties. So too are beers with fruity tones. Ultimately, the combination that you think pairs best comes down to personal preference.
If you don’t mind pausing for an early evening snack and drink, happy hours are a means of tasting cut price oysters and enjoying a vibrant buzz in a handful of New York’s restaurants. The timings of those happy hours vary from venue to venue. Check the chalkboard menu at the John Dory Oyster Bar (thejohndory.com), on Broadway, for a list of the daily specials. Cull and Pistol Oyster Bar (lobsterplace.com), in Chelsea, does take outs and deliveries, should you fancy oysters during a cosy night in your hotel. The L & W Oyster Co (landwoyster.com) is a hip Fifth Avenue spot with booths opposite the bar. On the other side of the East River, Atrium Dumbo (atriumdumbo.com) in Brooklyn, serves its oysters with a deliciously tangy apple and cucumber mignonette.
By far the most famous of New York’s many seafood restaurants is the Grand Central Oyster Bar (oysterbarny.com) which first opened for business back in 1913. The elegant architecture of the high-ceilinged main concourse makes the terminal a tourist attraction in its own right—its current attractiveness owes much to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s role in calling for the iconic building to be restored during the 1970s. Grand Central Market is a great place to pick up gourmet cuisine, including seafood, for a room picnic after a long day of shopping and tourism in the Big Apple. Executive Chef Sandy Ingber has worked in the Grand Central Oyster Bar for 26 years. His working day starts at 2am, when he heads to Fulton Fish Market. Over the summer, when many people falsely think oysters can’t be eaten, Ingber is able to keep around 20 varieties of oyster on his menu. He calls the spurious belief that oysters can’t be eaten from May through until the end of August, “the R-month myth”. Many people will only eat them when an ‘R’ appears in the name of the month.
“Through most of the ‘90s I had problems sourcing oysters in the summertime. Sometimes we only had two or three
oysters on our menu. Nowadays I could put 40 oysters if I chose and none of them would be spawning,” explains Ingber. Air-freight and refrigerated transport ensures the oysters arrive in the restaurant around 24 hours after coming out of the sea. They never have an opportunity to heat up, meaning diners can enjoy them while they are still fresh.
If the idea of staring at a raw, freshly shucked oyster doesn’t appeal, you can also enjoy them cooked. “One of our big signature dishes is oyster stew…it’s one of our original dishes. We have these little steam jacketed kettles. They create a fast heat. The oyster stew is a mild cream soup with clam juice, butter and oysters. Then we add half-and-half [a mixture of cream and milk] and serve that,” says Ingber.
New York, in fact, used to be renowned for its cooked oysters, which would be exported pickled to Europe and the West Indies in wooden sailing ships. They were affordable and nutritious, and by no means luxury food. Oysters, both raw and cooked, were an affordable food of the people until pollution and over-harvesting caused demand to outstrip supply.
Sitting on a stool at one of the U-shaped counters, beneath the fawn coloured Guastavino tiles that adorn the elegant arches of the Oyster Bar, and ordering seafood is a quintessential New York experience. Another of those is Sunday brunch at the upscale Waldorf Astoria (waldorfnewyork.com), on Park Avenue, a property whose Art Deco interiors have played host to ever sitting president of the United States since its doors first opened in 1939. A major refurb, lasting three years, will begin in the spring of 2017 causing a hiatus in business. Booking into a brunch sitting in Peacock Alley Restaurant means access to as much caviar and as many oysters as you want to eat. Members of staff shuck them fresh for waiting diners, and are knowledgeable about the varieties and place of origin of the oysters served.
They may not be as large as those that European settlers pulled from the shoreline four centuries ago but they are plentiful and delicious. New York is, of course, known as the Big Apple but it’s hard to imagine a place bigger in its appreciation of oysters.
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