With an increasing number of restaurants and bars serving fresh bivalves, NYC has become a heaven of oceanic goodness for sophisticated diners. Whether you are looking to slurp dozens over $1 oyster happy hour or entice your taste buds with a selected few, knowing the difference between East Coast and West Coast oysters and some wine pairing basics is key to enjoying nature’s offering and impressing your date. Like understanding wine, ordering oysters is an acquired skill. Here are the eight things you need to know:
Know the difference
Living oysters get their food by constantly filtering water, thus acquiring unique flavor profiles and morphing varied shell shapes according to their environs. It is important to understand how oysters’ native terroir contributes to differences in appearance, texture and shape.
East: East coast oysters are gown sub-tidally, lying always below water and in colder temperatures.
West: West coast oysters are grown inter-tidally, exposed above water in low tide and submerged below water in high tide.
- Shell size, shape and coloration
East: Having been nestled in relatively calmer waters, East Coast oysters develop smoother shells with rounded edges. They are bigger, 2-6 inches in diameter, with relatively shallower shells. They come in shades of brown, green and white.
West: With the frequent tossing of intertidal waters, West Coast oysters have rougher shells which are fluted with jagged edges, points and ridges. They tend to be smaller, 1-2 inches in diameter, with deeper shells. You will find them in shades of black, purple, green, with white and pink hues.
- Flesh texture and flavor profile
East: The colder waters slow down the metabolism of oysters, producing crisp-textured bivalves with higher salinity, brininess and minerality.
West: Warmer waters speed up metabolism, producing creamier and thicker-textured oysters. Overall, West Coast oysters are sweeter, taste inkier and have more notes of seaweed, melon and cucumber.
- Examples of the most prized oysters
East: Naked Cowboys (NY), Blue Point (NY, CT), Melpeque (PEI), Misty Point (VA)
West: Kumamoto (WA), Kushi (BC), Totten Inlet (WA), Fanny Bay (BC), Nisqually (WA)
Tasting and Pairing
- Inspect before you slurp
Fresh oysters should be glistening in their own “liquor” (briny seawater in the half shell) and smell like sea breeze with sweet notes. If an oyster appears dry, submerged in cloudy water, or smells fishy, toss it and let the waiter know.
- Accoutrement pairing
I like my oysters naked – pure and unadulterated. The most I might add is a splash of lemon juice. Some people like to drizzle a bit of spicy and tart mignonette (a condiment commonly made with minced shallots, cracked pepper and vinegar) to wake up the flesh. No right or wrong answers here, it’s all about your preference, but I highly recommend you to try at least one or two without any accoutrements!
- Wine pairing
Raw oysters are very delicate. A wine that’s too sweet, complex in flavor, oaky or tannic will overpower or destroy the subtlety in both taste and texture. With this in mind, you should avoid pairing raw oysters with most reds, sweet wines or Chardonnays that are oaky and buttery. Crisp, dry, light-bodied whites are your best options.
- Classic pairing: Champagne and dry sparkling bubbles, Sauvignon Blanc, Chablis, Muscadet
- Fun pairing: Spritzy Txakoli from Basque country is a fun option if you want to try something new and really impress your date.
Note: Stay tuned for more insights into different wines to pair with oysters.
As with wines, the flavor profiles of oysters depend on where they come from, the conditions in which they are grown, and your personal palate. A bit of technical understanding is sure to enhance not only your menu confidence, but also the experiential beauty of tasting and pairing which lies in curiosity, open-mindedness and creativity. Santé!