Sara Waxman’s ode to the true Oyster Love of oyster-meisters
In the history of food, the oyster’s reputation as an aphrodisiac is legendary.
Lying icy-cool-naked in their clear, briny liquor are a half-dozen, topless, living, breathing, marine bivalve mollusks, shivering at a citrusy squirt of lemon—ready to pleasure an oyster lover. Lift one to your lips, suck it from its pearly shell and let it slide down your throat in all its sweet and salty splendour. Primordial bliss.
…by the time you’ve sucked back a dozen just-out-of-bed Malpeques, Aspy Bays or Caraquets, you’ve gone through a sea change.
You’ve slipped off your shoes and wiggled your toes. The oyster shuckers/bartenders are your new best friends. They involve and entertain you until everyone feels they’re part of one big, happy clambake. Everything that comes out of your mouth is witty; everything that goes in is delicious.
The Oyster has its own calendar. It likes the months ending in “r” best.
Rodney Clark introduced pedigreed oysters to Toronto in the ’80s. It was the decade that black tie entertaining came out of the closet, and Rodney’s Oyster Bar at a party meant instant cache. Rodney is to the oyster what Harvard is to the law. Today, he tells me, “Eighty four percent of oyster shuckers, owners and buyers all held an oyster knife, or tenure, at Rodney’s Oyster House. Last year,” he says, “I moved 1,717,328 pieces through wholesale and catering, including an average of 1,875 shucked at the granite bar, daily.” That’s a lot of mollusk. While oysters are the lynch pin at Rodney’s, as well as lobster, scallops, crab and shrimp, there is another draw. The 78-year-old Grace Noel has been making soups and chowders here for 26 years.
Rodney waxes romantic when it comes to his oysters, one of nature’s most honest foods: “The taste of the Kushi is that it pushes you in over the salty wharf, while the wild oyster, Malpeque of P.E.I., will gently take you by the hand and lead you over the salt flats and caress you into the ocean.”
There is no machine that can open an oyster. I pick up Rodney’s bespoke oyster knife, made by Brian Lyttle in High Plains, Alberta, and it’s heavy. “It’s been designed for my hand,” he says, “the handle, the length of the blade and Rockwell factor [the strength of the steel].” The knife is the only equipment a true oyster lover needs.
The world according to Adam Colquhoun, aka Oyster Boy: “At Oyster Boy, we eat, live and breathe oysters. We love their hard shells; their smooth taste and the un-class-conscious way they make themselves at home in a rowdy pub or a black tie affair. But more than anything, we love to share these magnificent mollusks and all their juicy secrets with the masses! Here, the oyster is our world.”
Holding the Ontario Oyster Shucking Championship title, Adam opened Oyster Boy, a cozy restaurant much beloved by the Queen West neighbourhood in which it sits for its casual ambience and utterly fresh oysters and seafood. The Toronto neighbourhood accounts for 95 percent of the clientele. The day’s mollusks are printed on the blackboard and a quick survey of folks in seats tells me that oysters are “man-food.” Oysters here come au nature, or fancied up. You can have them baked with crabmeat and sherry béchamel, in chowder or panko crusted and deep-fried. They steam whole lobsters and whole fish and deep-fry fish and chips. Acadian sturgeon ceviche comes with yuzu dressing, and Acadian supplies them with fresh sturgeon caviar, which they offer up with all the fixings. You can even take a box of oysters home and have a shucking good time in your own kitchen.
Patrick McMurray has become a one-man oyster conglomerate since opening Starfish Oyster Bed and Grill and his Irish pub, Ceili Cottage, both in Toronto. After winning the World Championship of Oyster Opening in Galway, Ireland in 2002 and getting in the Guinness Book of World Records for shucking 38 oysters in one minute, his career and his imagination have soared. His certificate program at George Brown College, Oyster 101 and 201 is in the works, and he travels the world to lecture to the Executive Chef Training School of the Marriott/Ritz Carlton Hotel chain. With Barley Days Brewery he has created a single-oyster bed bevvie, Scrimshaw Oyster Stout – No.1, in cask, kegs and bottles. His personal Paddy’s Pistol Grip Oyster Knife, in collaboration with Bluntroll, has been picked up by SwissMar for North America distribution, and his book, Consider the Oyster – A Shucker’s Field Guide, is set to be reprinted. Besides our bi-coastal oysters, he offers the two European species: Bellon and Fin de Claire. Try a selection of a dozen and you are on the way to becoming an oyster aficionado.
Toronto is hooked on oysters. Most bars, bistros and pubs have oysters on the menu. But Caveat Emptor. Buyer Beware. With oysters, like many things, you get what you pay for.