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Aw Shucks!

[whitespace] Oysters
David Fortin

Aphrodisiac on the Half Shell: Oyster shucker Ian Reynolds prepares sea-born beauties at the Elite Cafe

GWM, 25, seeks briny mollusk for torrid affair

By Michael Stabile

Despite four years of prep school and a liberal arts education in New England--complete with whale watching, clam chowder and trips to Provincetown--I came to California an oyster virgin. I wasn't opposed to the idea; certainly I had been to clambakes in Massachusetts, gone quahogging in Rhode Island and was fairly attached to methode champagnoise. Oysters were associated with pearls and they were rarely placed in the ubiquitous stews and chowders of Connecticut. In retrospect, one doesn't seek out oysters. At some magical culinary moment, when one is finally ready to appreciate their simple Jil Sandered elegance, they seek out you. Like a collection agency, once they find you, you can never escape their call.

It was at the Elite Cafe, in the Upper Fillmore, for brunch when my date turned to me and asked if I had ever had an oyster. I hemmed and hawed, made excuses and generally evaded the question until she, too, confessed inexperience with their reputedly libidinous power. We settled on oyster shooters, a shot worth of Bloody Mary with the delicate if plump mollusk rimming the glass bottom. With a quick cheer and a wink we downed the glasses in one quick swallow. And an oyster fork somewhere in the distance struck upon a star. The taste, beneath the horseradish and vodka and tomato juice, lingered subtly but memorably (like Elizabeth Berkley on Saved by the Bell before she was recognized as a showgirl of her own). Since then many oyster seasons have passed. I've read M.F.K. Fisher's Consider the Oyster and understand Cole Porter better. I've been through the half shell, I've romanced Kumamotos and Sunset Beach and Eastern Blue Points and Wellfleets. And I've never regretted the addiction.

With the official end of oyster season approaching (old fishermen's tales dictate eating oysters only in months containing the letter r) I thought it important to recapture the glory of the oyster and the subsequent humility of the diner that I experienced My First Time. I couldn't cover all the bases--countless restaurants proffer countless varieties--but I could seek out the mood and romance I first experienced years ago.

I started with the Anchor Oyster Bar on Castro, if only because several reputable and handsome gay gourmands wouldn't stop raving about it. I went, I saw, I was underwhelmed. It's hard to ruin an oyster--they need only be shucked and perhaps accompanied by a delicate mignonette or squeeze of lemon. The oysters at the Anchor were lovely enough, half a dozen Wellfleet and half a dozen Diamond Point, but Castro eateries seem to live by the same culinary dictum that its patrons do sexually: bigger is better. In similarly indulgent situations, I concur. As oysters go, however, the smaller the oyster, the more motion in the epicurean ocean. Flavor is more refined and complex in younger oysters, the swallow easier to complete, and the sense of possessing a small bit of something so ethereal even more fulfilling.

I proceeded the next evening through a torrential downpour to Zuni, whose oyster list is as impressive as its clientele. I was cold. I was wet. I wanted decadence. We ordered two dozen oysters--a melange of Kumamoto, Skookum, Quilcene, Fanny Bay--and my waiter blanched. "You do know that two dozen is a lot of oysters for two people, don't you?" I wanted to ask her if a gram of coke wasn't an awful lot for one dinner shift, but I was tempted by the blood sausage appetizer and seared sea scallop salad, so I relented. The Kumamoto, a creamy Japanese strain revived in California and Oregon, is an common favorite as much for its frequent appearance on lists as for its pleasingly full shape and briny after-flavors. While Eastern oysters (such as Wellfleet) are generally considered superior to either Pacific or Olympia oysters (harvested on the Pacific seaboard and in Puget Sound, respectively), local oysters are often fresher, more tender and preferable to those raised on the opposite coast.

Despite the glass-encased chic of Zuni and its bevy of attractive waiters with roguish yet metropolitan names like Buck and Alan, I needed ultimately to revisit the scene of My First Time. The Elite Cafe's selection can't compete with the thoroughness of Zuni, but like the tree under which I received my first kiss, the place made me feel nostalgic and emotional. Gone from the menu were the oyster shooters with whose help I had once bridged the gap between ingenue and gentleman. The marble oyster bar, with its selection of would-be pearl shells and Dungeness crab legs, remained. The Upper Fillmore is purebred heaven on a clear and warm Sunday, and brunch at the Elite gladly embraces the corresponding mood of carefree exuberance.

We ordered a dozen oysters on the half shell accompanied by the traditional horseradish cocktail sauce, and sipped Bloody Marys. Three years later, I had run into an old passionate flame. The oysters were delicate and firm, buttery in their clear liqueur. The waitress could barely finish describing the varieties before we had scooped up the shells and swallowed them whole. We washed them down with a slightly sweet bottle of Tattinger. Some prefer a steelier wine to match, while others insist on dry sherry or a citrusy Muscadet, but for me, only a semi-dry champagne raises consciousness to meet the glory of the oyster.

The Elite's menu contrasts the weightlessness of its appetizers with earthy and rich Creole cuisine. Chef Donald Link's brunch entrees include a glorious hash and poached eggs made with filet mignon, which I invariably make someone at the table order each time I visit. Grandad's Chicken and Dumplings is a little misleading, since the dumplings are more like herbed biscuits, but I wouldn't dare argue with our waitress. The slow- cooked chicken and mushroom stew surrounding the "dumplings" was savory and unpretentious. It bore as much resemblance to chicken pot pie as a fresh Maui onion bears to the refried variety that tops a McDonald's cheeseburger. Finishing another Bloody Mary and stumbling into the quivering sun of mid-afternoon, I felt bloated, but blessed.

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From the February 15, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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