BaltimOregon to Maine

Locavore Cooking with Southern Efficiency and Northern Charm

Posts Tagged ‘oysters

No Precious Olympia Oysters at Olympia’s Waterfront Budd Bay Cafe

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Robb Walsh’s Oyster guide: Olympia’s are the morsels on the bottom row (

I am admittedly a food snob. Still, I can feast like a king on a tangy, umami-bomb of Vietnamese banh mi sandwich, a steal for about $4.25 each. Of course, you can cook simple, delicious meals at home for less. But when we spend $60 or more on a meal for two, we expect it to be good. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case tonight in Olympia.

En route to Seattle (on rainy, Thanksgiving-traffic-clogged I-5), on a whim we stopped for dinner in the charming capital city of Olympia on the south Puget Sound. We considered Trinacria, a supposedly stellar red sauce and homemade pasta joint whose name (the term for “Kingdom of Sicily”) reminded us of an Italian deli we loved in Baltimore. Then we got a hankering for oysters, reading that the petite native species has been revived here. The obvious Oyster House seemed too touristy. We wanted to eat oyster burgers and shooters at the Fish Brewing Company pub, but alas, no minors–no one under 21–not even a five-month-old baby who subsists on breastmilk–are allowed on the premises. Just like at our beloved Squirrel’s Tavern in Corvallis. Having kids does limit your choices. We were directed instead to Ramblin’ Jacks, which had a hip vibe but alas no oysters (just fried pickle chips) on the menu.
Sometimes you just become too blinded by a quest for something like oysters. We should have been content with wood-fired pizza at Ramblin’ Jacks. We would have had a great meal at the brewery, if not with child. Somehow we found ourselves at the dated seafood and brunch-focused Budd Bay Cafe only because they had pan-fried oysters on the menu. The excessive Christmas decor and cloying Christmas music should have been a sign. They didn’t have oysters fresh enough to serve on half-shell, just the pan-fried “Pacific Northwest” variety. Their salmon was King, but farm-raised. Discerning diners know better out here. Budd Bay’s was hardly a locavore, but rather a Sysco-inspired, menu. I just no longer have a tolerance for white tablecloth, country club-style food that is expensive, bland, uninspired and often inedible. Touristy waterfront seafood restaurants are often the worst offenders. You go to these restaurants–the Lobster Trap in Maine, Gracie’s Sea Hag in Depot Bay, Ore., the Rusty Scupper in Baltimore, Jake’s in Hull, Mass.–with such expectations. The menu items tempt–the fish descriptions sound so fresh–you have the illusion it was just plucked from the water outside the restaurant’s window. But the dishes generally disappoint. Usually, the seafood is fried and the chowder’s too unctuous, thick and creamy, so you leave feeling a little sick and so wishing you’d spent your $60 elsewhere.
So we wasted our one meal in Olympia. Somehow I just felt cheated, because I told the hostess-owner we were there to try to the local oysters. So I felt betrayed when we weren’t served the local delicacy. Sure, they were Washington-raised oysters, but they were the much larger, less delicate and briny Pacific variety. And they weren’t even that fresh. They were the last oysters left in the bucket, bathing in a sludgy liquor. She went to retrieve the container when I asked if not the local Olympia oysters where they were from. I know I seemed like the characters in Portlandia who ask in a restaurant about the source of their poultry, abruptly getting up to go visit the local chicken farm. But this is what I care about. I want to know what species of oyster I’m eating and where it was raised. I expect it to be fresh. I wanted to vote with my dollars and my tastebuds for the Olympia oyster, to support ecological efforts to revive the Pacific Northwest’s only native species. But sadly out-of-touch restaurants like the Budd Bay Cafe, who care more about boasting waterfront views than sourcing quality local ingredients, just don’t get it.

Written by baltimoregon

November 28, 2011 at 12:42 am

Considering MFK Fisher’s Oysters

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Consider the Oyster Stew: my re-creation of Mama Zu's version.

Granted East Coast seafood doesn’t usually compare to our abundant Pacific Northwest offerings: orange-red wild salmon, Dungeness crab, mussels, halibut. We even have our own respected local Yaquina Bay oysters there. But I might just prefer those plumper Chesapeake Bay oysters I indulged in while back here in Virginia. I got a mad craving for these luscious, briny mollusks while savoring MFK Fisher’s Consider the Oyster on the plane from Oregon to Baltimore. It’s hard to believe she produced such celebratory prose while facing the imminent death of her true love in war-torn 1941.

Fisher’s musings on the gastronomical pleasures of oysters made me lust for this most sensual of foods. She aptly describes the “three kinds of oyster-eaters: those loose-minded sports who will eat anything, hot, cold, thin, thick, dead or alive, as long as it is oyster; those who will eat them raw and only raw; and those who with equal severity will eat them cooked and no way other.” When it comes to oysters, as with all foods, I’m an omnivore, but I do prefer to slurp the freshest specimens raw. If they aren’t freshly shucked, my dad’s Mexican oysters and now oyster stews are my favorite cooked preparations. And of course I love them fried, if they aren’t too greasy, the batter light and slightly spicy. My grandparents contracted a bad case of hepatitis from some type of raw shellfish, so I try to avoid suspect ones.

Reading Fisher made me want to make a velvety oyster stew, that elegant “supper to sleep on” that I’d hardly eaten before. But there it was calling out to us this week at Mama Zu’s, our favorite no frills-yet-decadent Italian spot. What gave the creamy, smooth broth its piquancy? A pancetta base and crushed red pepper, obviously strained out, the waitress said. I had to recreate it.

Oyster stew recipes are as numerous as clam chowders, varying by region. Despite its simplicity, oyster stew gives the cook plenty of options, Fisher says. How do you assemble your ingredients? Boil the oysters in their own liquor first, and then add the creamy broth? Saute the oysters in butter first, until they furl? My father the chef recommended the latter. I fried up some pancetta, added the oysters and sizzled them with some dried chipotle peppers for a kick. In a separate pot, I boiled the oyster’s liquor, skimmed off the foam, added heavy cream and whole milk (healthy, I know), a pat of butter, celery salt and salt and pepper to taste. Feel free to substitute/add other spices, such as paprika. I simmered this broth and then added the oysters when ready. For a perfect texture you could strain the broth first, but I didn’t care.

Here’s to oysters for the rest of these winter “r” months. In truth, oysters are fine to eat anytime they aren’t diseased, but Fisher explains why oyster farmers have urged us not to consume them in the warm summer months. That’s the only time the ocean waters are warm enough for the oysters to spawn. Hence the rule. Indulge while you can now, comfort yourself now while the fields lie fallow, and then let our “indecisively sexed” friends reproduce in peace. Summer’s bounty will be enough to distract us then.

Fried oysters at Mama Zu's.

Written by baltimoregon

December 26, 2009 at 7:43 pm

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