When I think of summer, I think patios, rose and oysters. Technically, oyster season used to be the complete opposite of summertime (with old adages telling you to only eat them during months with an “r” in it, i.e. September – April). But lucky for us, the growing methods of oysters have changed enough that we can enjoy them year round – especially on a lovely Chicago summer evening, like I often do.
I must not be the only one who craves this briny, refreshing, ocean gem as quality raw bars are sprinkled throughout the city. With new comers like Lettuce Entertain You’s Oyster Bah and Boka Group’s Cold Storage, major players amongst the Chicago restaurant scene are ensuring that this food trend is here to stay. Perhaps it’s the ease of buying and pricing by the piece that so many patrons appreciate; this allows for as few or as many as the table wants to order, they don’t take long to prepare in case you decide you want more and many restaurants offer the awesome happy hour deal of $1 per oyster (check out Kinmont on Wednesdays).
Mignonette Sauce and Bubbles at Kinmont
Perhaps the popularity of oysters can be attributed to the diversity in tastes and flavors that you can get from East Coast to West Coast varieties. I’m partial to the Pacific (or west coast) oyster as they are larger and at least to me, taste a bit more buttery and sweet vs. the Atlantic (or east coast) which tend to taste more salty and savory. The names of oysters denotes the area they were grown in and once you start trying a lot, you may even decide on your specific favorite origin. For instance, the Kumamoto, a Pacific oyster has quite the following and is recommended for first-time oyster tasters due to its approachable, subtle, sea-like essence. If the nuances of flavor don’t stand out to you, their shell shape and size certainly will, as the Atlantic’s are smooth and uniform in color whereas the Pacific’s have more jagged and pointy edges.
Yet another reason why perhaps oysters are “having a moment” right now are the fun accoutrement they are served with. The Mignonette Sauce is my personal favorite: traditionally a mixture of red wine vinegar, minced shallots and cracked black pepper. Restaurants are putting their own spins on this sauce, using sparkling wine vinegar and even creating granita versions of the lovely topper. Fresh horseradish, cocktail sauce, hot sauce, Ponzu sauce and more join in on the “make your own” element of oysters.
Raw Sampler at Oyster Bah
While I’d like to think some of the oyster’s popularity is also due in part to its high sustainability, in reality it’s probably more attributed to the urban legend of its aphrodisiac qualities. Supposedly, famed lover Casanova ate 50 oysters each morning for breakfast. While this may or may not be completely true, there’s something to be said about a man who takes you out for oysters on one of your first dates; if not for its sensual qualities than at least for the thrill of potentially finding a pearl in your meal. What other food can say that? (Technically, clams and mussels can also potentially grow pearls but those are much more rare). The result of a biological process, producing a pearl is actually the oyster's way of protecting itself. When a foreign substance slips into the oyster between its shell and membrane, the oyster's natural reaction is to cover up that irritant and it continues cover it up layer after layer, building up until it eventually forms a pearl. I’d take a side of jewelry with my meal any day!
In fact, I think I’ll enjoy some of these juicy, little gems tonight. As mentioned, Chicago has no shortage of awesome restaurants offering not only high quality oysters at low prices but cool and swanky atmospheres to enjoy them in - check out Thrillist’s list of the Top 19 – and perhaps The Chopping Block will soon round out the Top 20, as we just added a new cooking class to our curriculum: Raw Bar & Bubbles. Come join us in July as we demonstrate how to shuck oysters, shrimp and mussels, all while sipping on a class of sparkling wine – as we wouldn’t have it any other way.