by David Blandford
“People who don’t love oysters never fully embrace life.”
That proclamation was made by Seattle seafood guru Jon Rowley at a dinner I coordinated a few years back, and it’s haunted me ever since.
If anyone knows and loves fresh Puget Sound oysters, it’s Jon. He consults for the renowned Taylor Shellfish Farms here locally, has organized national restaurant oyster programs and produces the annual Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition, which has been called a “dating service” for West Coast wines and oysters. Local lore says that in a blind taste test of raw oysters, Jon can identify the body of water from which any local oyster originated.
The feat is impressive considering Puget Sound’s expanse and variety of clean, coldwater bays, inlets and channels that are rich with Pacific oyster beds. Small and sweet, these oysters are among the most popular in the world.
That said, I confess that I do not love raw oysters.
I’ve tried to love them, believe me. And in an oyster-loving town like Seattle, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to refine my palate. It’s hard to find a restaurant that doesn’t serve them, and it’s downright un-patriotic to shun a plate of fresh Kumomotos amid the euphoric slurping of my dinner mates.
Alas. “Can I get some more beer and sourdough over here, please?”
What’s ironic about my predicament is that I’m a pescatarian and l love most every other kind of seafood – from clams to mussels, scallops, halibut, snapper, prawns, crab and salmon.
Fortunately, Seattle’s superb seafood restaurants aim to please both oyster lovers and, well, the rest of us. Here’s some quick tips for both groups at a few of my favorite haunts.
Oysters are the star attraction at this nearly 40-year-old institution on Pier 56. They boast some 30 oyster varieties from buttery Olympia to sweet European Flat, all cultivated and harvested in certified, sustainable growing areas. Oyster haters, don’t despair. Try the Dungeness crab – steamed, chilled or marinated – and choose from more 12 Northwest craft beers and ales on tap.
On Pier 70, AQUA by El Gaucho offers an elegant bar and happy hour menu with fresh, seasonal Taylor Shellfish Farms oysters. Or, try the halibut ceviche or Ahi tuna tartar. If the stunning Elliott Bay view is as close to the sea as you want to be, go for turf – steak and frites.
Few experiences are as quintessentially Seattle as a seafood happy hour at the venerable Ray’s Boathouse and Café on Shilshole Bay. This is the place for fresh, local oysters, or consider myriad alternatives: Mediterranean mussels in red curry and coconut milk broth; Pacific Manila clams steamed in beer and dill butter or house smoked salmon with cucumber-sesame relish, fresh pineapple and maple rice wine vinegar. The dining room has recently been remodeled and will re-open for business in late January.
This self-described “oyster haven” is a favorite of food writers across the country. If you don’t like oysters but you still want to try one of Seattle’s newest and coolest menus, check out the locally harvested clams and mussels, house smoked fish, specialty meats, some crafty cocktails and regional beer and wine.
Here you can sample some of the winners from the Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition. Or, take home some fresh clams, mussels, geoduck or crab. They’ve also got wild, flash-frozen salmon and local craft brews by the bottle. There’s a daily oyster stew which may be more palatable for those who are timid about raw oysters.