Early into my interview, I asked Bil if there was any advantage to eating oysters in a restaurant, to which he responded (I paraphrase): No. Astonishingly, he encourages customers to try shucking at home.
“If you get good [at shucking] there’s no difference. They’re not like other things at the restaurant that take 2-3 days to make, like a demi-glace. They’re one of the few things that will be exactly the same at home.” Seemingly counter-intuitive, but it made me want to eat there even more.
So, one evening, notebook in hand, I ventured over for a tutorial. At 7 p.m. on a Thursday night, the room was packed and buzzing with conversation. Vaguely reminiscent of a mid-century hunting lodge or rural café (metal industrial lamps, 1950’s cabinetry, board-mounted animalia), the mood of the place was informal but by no means dowdy. My host easily spotted (a tall, lanky man in a coonskin cap), I walked towards the bar where I was warmly greeted, and plunked myself down on a stool.
Behind the bar, Bil was putting together an order of oysters. Mildly distracted, even awed by the facility and dexterity with which he handled them (like watching Houdini at a lock, and in no way resembled the strain, and profane mutterings of my dinner party), I regaled him with the details of the previous weekend’s feasting, and of my difficulties with the fish monger. First, he suggested I give La Mer another shot for a couple of reasons: 1) I now had a frame of reference to work from; (2) He’d bought from them for years and trusted them. Part of the appeal of La Mer is that so much of their trade is in oysters; they supply many of the top restaurants in the city. This results in high turnover, reliability, and good selection. The downside? Food industry specialists can get a little insular: they’re used to dealing with people like Bil (who, incidentally, used to manage an oyster farm), but aren’t always as eager to share their knowledge.
“Would you like to try a few?” he offered. “Sure,” I answered, nodding my head like a dashboard ornament. “Would you show me how to open them?” The couple sitting next to me leaned in to watch (a lot of regulars, it seemed) and we began the tutorial.
He drew four oysters from the enamelled sink before him and laid them on a clean rag on the counter. Then, placing his hand firmly over the first, he pressed the tip of his blade to the hinge, gave it a little shimmy, and quickly coaxed it open.
We sat there blinking. His hand reached out for the next. “Here’s what you do,” he said.
1. Place the oyster on a firm and stable surface (a counter top or cutting board) with a rag or tea towel beneath to prevent slippage; wrap the towel over the oyster (to improve your grip) and press down firmly with your palm.
2. Place the tip of the blade at the hinge point and apply pressure with a downward push and twist (a shimmy, really).
3. Slide your knife over the top of the oyster to detach it from the top shell.
4. Clean out the shell (it’s easier to clean out broken shell before detaching it); and detach it from the bottom.
The four glistening oysters were placed neatly before me on their nacreous shells. The first was a fat, salty American by the name of Big Rock (Massachusetts). The second, from Colville Bay, was smaller and sweeter, though still quite plump, and considerably firmer in texture. Next came a miniature mollusk (Shigoku, U.S. West Coast) in a shell that curled over a little like a snail’s. It too was sweet, and tasted a little like nori. Lastly I tried the Kumamoto (Washington), which was softer than the others and richer tasting – but not overbearing. I slurped down all four and declared my unequivocal favourite: the sweet, crisp little wonder from Colville Bay. “P.E.I.!” my host cried, proudly.
The tutorial turned into a sumptuous three course meal (I’ll definitely be heading back), at the end of which, my neighbours and I slid from our stools to re-confront reality. Warm-bellied and rosy-cheeked from wine, our host turned to us and asked: “Happy?” Indeed we were. I walked home, beaming to myself, and pretended that these had been my first oysters.