Should We Leave Oysters Alone?

As the trend for dressing oysters in everything from bone marrow to Monster Munch continues to grow, we ask whether it’s time we left those bivalves alone...
Oystermen One Credit Chris Coulson
Sometimes it's best to keep things simple. Photograph: Chris Coulson.

I remember my first oyster as if it was yesterday. That’s probably the most middle-class sentence I’ve ever written. Well, second-most if you also count the next. Because the reason I remember that oyster so vividly is that I ate it when I was about eleven years old at a restaurant in Royan, a seaside resort town in southwest France.

Pilfered from my parent’s fruits de mer platter, laden with coral crevettes and rubbery grey bulots, that oyster was my first taste of adventure through food and the start of a lifelong love affair with that brackish bivalve. Savouring that sweet and salty mouthful, I was no longer a young man confused about long division and girls but Ahab standing on the bow of the Pequod, squinting through the spray and surveying an ocean of potential lunches in front of my eyes. It was the most mature assault I’d ever given my palate and one that I greedily chased with a glug of ice-cold Orangina.

Known as the “kidneys of the sea”, oysters play an essential role in coastal rewilding and have a potentially important role in reducing climate gas emissions. The reason I’m telling you all this is because I truly believe the oyster to be a sacred food – one which you simply should not fuck with. A saline, yonnic purse that slides down your throat as easily as a sunburnt child slides down a waterslide in Portugal, an oyster purrs with subtle creamy notes and has a metallic aftertaste that lingers with you long after you’re left with an empty shell. That delicate balance of flavours is why I’ve found myself apprehensive about the current trend of covering oysters in what seems like an entire cupboard’s worth of condiments.

The familiar triforce of lemon, Tabasco, and mignonette (an Ed, Edd ‘n’ Eddy of oyster additions that I begrudgingly condone thanks to their ubiquity, if nothing else) has given way to an “anything goes” approach where you can now find oysters on the menu at restaurants dressed in everything from bone marrow miso butter to Monster Munch. Which is fine. You can do what you want with food; that’s part of the fun. But all these additions almost seem like a way of making oysters appealing to a crowd of people who, well, don’t like oysters. It’s the crudo equivalent of serving someone steak haché and calling it a grilled “steak tartare”.

Oystermen Two Credit Chris Coulson
Oysters at The Oystermen. Photograph: Chris Coulson.

One classically extravagant style of serving oysters is Oysters Rockefeller – a dish where oysters are baked in a heinous amount of butter and topped with bread crumbs. It is perhaps the most obvious culprit of this over-the-top treatment. And the most obviously delicious. Created in 1889, that dish was deemed so rich it was named after John D. Rockefeller, the then-wealthiest man in America. Eksetdt at The Yard, the latest London restaurant from Niklas Ekstedt, even serves a dish called “oysters flambadou” whereby those bivalves are cooked using a flambadou and dripped with molten beef fat.

Not all cooked oysters, though, are based around excess. I once ate a deep-fried Porthilly oyster at Paul Ainsworth at Number 6, a classy and violently parent-friendly restaurant in Padstow, which gave me pause. Crisp on the outside while still hot, creamy, and unmistakable oyster-y in the middle, that amuse bouche was a statement of intent; deep-frying the oyster in a light batter didn’t sing over top of the mollusc’s song but, instead, ratcheted up the volume on its nuanced flavour profile.

I’m not saying that I want all my oysters to be deep-fried going forward but as an example of how cooking an oyster can bring out its very best qualities, it’s a deft technique when done well. When it comes to oyster consumption preferences, many places in Japan actually shun raw oysters, preferring them served tonkatsu-style (fried on panko breadcrumbs and served with bulldog sauce and shredded cabbage).

Many restaurants in the UK, like the aforementioned No.6, also make use of that flash-frying technique. The Oystermen Seafood Bar & Kitchen’s tempura oysters (served with Champagne aioli and smoked herring caviar) is a case in point of a restaurant pushing the deep-fried oyster to its limits. While that cooked version jumps out on the menu like an alley cat in heat, it’s the raw offerings at The Oystermen which interest me the most. The Oystermen is a restaurant that, as its name would suggest, prides itself on its oyster output, serving only the freshest local oysters that come in from day boats.

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Rob Hampton founded The Oystermen with fellow seafood obsessive, Matt Lovell. Rob’s favourite way to enjoy an oyster is, like myself, freshly shucked with a tiny squeeze of lemon. “I obviously eat a lot of oysters,” says Rob, “and while I prefer them natural, I’m definitely partial to a nice cooked oyster. As with dressing oysters, the trick is to come up with something that works with the oyster and doesn’t mask it. Not everything works and so we experiment a lot.” While you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d be hard and fast oysters purists, even the Oystermen dress their finest shucked Louët-Feisser oysters in a variety of different flavour blends like champonzu, wasabi, and shiso; calamansi, jalapeño, and dill; and Buffalo sauce and kosho.

As for whether Rob prefers his dressed or in the nude? “Undressed is best,” he tells me, “but that’s just a personal preference. It’s easy to be a snobby purist about it but, as with all food and drink, it’s all about what you like.” That “each to their own” approach is reflected in Simon Lamont’s views on everyone’s favourite mollusc. Simon is the CEO of Rocks Oysters – the wholesaler responsible for supplying Whyte Rushen with the bivalves for his Oyster Munch ‘21 and Ben Slater’s bone marrow mapo butter oyster.

“The oyster, as a species, is older than invertebrates. Older than grass. Tasting them in their natural raw state is like tasting history. It’s pure perfection,” says Simon, “on the other hand, a deft little condiment or dressing can completely alter the experience. And if it plays in tune with the oyster, then a dressed oyster is a thing of beauty.” The more oyster experts I speak to, the more it seems that the key to dressing an oyster is in allowing the oyster’s concerto to still be heard in the symphony of a dish and using toppings that enhance its natural flavour rather than muffle it.

“An oysters merroir (that’s terroir of the ocean) can range from farm to farm. Some have notes of cucumber, fig leaf, mushroom, pine resin, even sweetcorn,” continues Simon, “chefs can play around with those nuances and doll them up.” I’ve got nothing against chefs dolling an oyster up but I guess the crux of this investigation is: should they even bother? Is the end-result really better than an oyster on its own?

Whyte Rushen’s pickled onion oyster dish is objectively delicious, a real umami smack around the chops, but does it do a disservice to the quality of the produce Whyte is using by masking the oyster’s naturally sweet and true flavour? If you’re Richard Corrigan – the chef/patron of Corrigan's Mayfair, Bentley's Oyster Bar and Grill, and Daffodil Mulligan – then the answer to that question is a resounding yes. On the condition that the oysters in question are in-season Natives, that is.

"The Native oyster, to me, is the most beautiful oyster one can really have and enjoy. The idea of putting miso butter or even Tabasco on a Native oyster? That is absolutely sacrilege,” Richard tells MOB Kitchen, “anyone adding too much to a Native is slightly unhinged. Discover nature's absolute bounty and enjoy it au natural; that is the finest way to enjoy a Native oyster. Treat the Rocks with your culinary ambition, because you can put anything on them, but the Native are the high altar of all oysters."

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Richard suggests that, if you are deadset on putting something on a Native oyster, the only acceptable addition is “a slight bit of freshly milled pepper” but “no lemon, no vinegars, no Tabascos, and no miso butters”. When given something so naturally beautiful on a plate, it’s an insult to an oyster fanatic like Corrigan to drown it in condiments. Richard does, however, note how Pacific and Kumamoto oysters can, in contrast to the meaty Native, “take a topping very easily” because “their taste is less pronounced”. Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill serves plain Rock oysters with the option of two different dressed versions: ‘Vietnamese’ and ‘Catalan’.

The Vietnamese-style dressing consists of a soy mirin, lime juice, and pickled ginger dressing topped with crispy shallots. The Catalan-style oysters are shallow-fried with chorizo, pepper mayonnaise and pickled onions. Personally, I’m happy as a clam with a reef of plain oysters and a wedge of lemon. But it’s good to see that even classicists like Richard Corrigan are open to new and interesting interpretations. The same goes for wholesalers like Sam Lamont.

“Today's chefs love to play around with exciting fresh combinations, and as long as the oyster shines through, I won't stand in their way. More power to 'em! If a dressed rock is a gateway into the delectable briny world of oyster, enticing nervous oyster virgins to delve into a world of raw seashore flavours, that’s all the better,” says Sam.

Writing this after a night at Bentley's where I thoroughly enjoyed tasting the nuanced differences between Natives from Cork and Falmouth, I guess it’s time that I put my own bivalve bah humbug-ness aside and realise that oysters aren’t some untouchable food. They’re simply another canvas for culinary creativity and, for a new generation of talented chefs out there, the world of oysters might just be their oyster.

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