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Raw Beauty

Thoughts and dreams about the oyster, Washington State’s tiny, potent culinary emblem.

“An oyster will taste like what the taster expects, which of course depends entirely on the taster.” —M.F.K. Fisher, Consider the Oyster

The Totten Inlet Virginicas arrived in Seattle early on a Saturday morning. Fifty-dozen oysters, farm-raised in the South Puget Sound, pulled from the water at 2 a.m., now on ice at Little Gull, the new oyster bar and grocery on the north shore of Lake Union. For oyster eaters, this was a big deal—the rare appearance of what many connoisseurs consider the best-tasting oyster in the world.

I got a call from Little Gull’s general manager, David Leck, who was spreading the word to friends and family: Get your ass to Little Gull ASAP because the Virginicas won’t last long.

Virginicas are a species native to warm-watered East Coast estuaries that until recently has been unable to reproduce in the Puget Sound’s year-round chill. Taylor Shellfish, the Washington-based seafood operation that happens to be North America’s largest, has been farming them for 10 years or so with intermittent success. Leck, 32, a champion shucker and avowed oyster apostle, was raring to dig into the season’s first batch.

I was sitting at Little Gull a few hours later, absorbing the waning radiance of a late-summer sunset, city lights awakening along the silvery skyline across the lake. Kicking back in sturdy Adirondack chairs, a friend and I shared a half-dozen Virginicas and a half-dozen Kusshis. Around us, the restaurant hummed. Every seat in the place was full.

Arranged on ice on a round silver tray, the Virginicas were flat, thin and wide like a shoehorn—a shallow-cupped oyster with a mild, sweetish flavor and a surprising toothsomeness. On contact, their tongue-shaped flesh suggested a cold French kiss. Strange, and strangely exciting. The Kusshis were smaller and plumper, half-dollar sized and deep-cupped, bright and briny and clean. More accessible, perhaps, than the Virginicas.

Night had fallen by the time we finished our first dozen, so we moved inside to the bar and ordered a second. Leck, red-stubbled, barrel-chested and sporting a tattoo of an Olympia oyster on the inside of his right forearm, bantered with other tatted shuckers behind the marble bar, all operating with machinelike speed. To my friend and me, this was a seafood experience apropos to our understanding of Seattle—laid-back but excited, equally intent on quality and flair—an experience that hasn’t been available until very recently.

Seafood in Seattle has long been the purview of cavernous waterfront spaces with blue martinis, carpeted floors and hundreds of seats—name-brand establishments built to lure out-of-town visitors rather than neighborhood diners. Over the last 10 or so years, restaurants serving bistro fare, Continental cuisine and American regionalism embraced the local-sustainable-organic mantra and took visual cues from industrial design and boho chic. Meanwhile, seafood places languished in a generic-commercial limbo, seemingly un-updated since 1983.

Little Gull and Westward, its full-service sister restaurant, are among an unprecedented class of small-scale seafood-focused restaurants to open in Seattle in the last few years. Each revolves around the oyster, rounded out by its retinue of the mussel, the clam and the geoduck—aquacultured foods that might be the most economical, accessible and ecologically sound proteins on the planet. The world’s best are raised up and down the Puget Sound and served all across the city.

Taylor Shellfish has been operating a bustling oyster and crab bar in Melrose Market since mid-2011, and is opening a full-service restaurant in Queen Anne early next year, and another in Pioneer Square sometime after that. In Fremont, newcomer Rock Creek features meticulously sourced and served seafood from around the world, including oysters from both coasts. The Ballard Oyster Annex is pretty much self-explanatory. Longtime Capitol Hill favorite Coastal Kitchen emerged from a recent remodel with an ambitious oyster program, and even longer-time waterfront landmark Elliot’s Oyster House unveiled its walk-up oyster bar, Café 56, last year.

The forerunners to these places arrived a few years prior: Opened in 2009, Anchovies and Olives, a raw seafood bistro on Capitol Hill, still features a popular, late-night “Oyster Power Hour.” The Walrus & the Carpenter opened in Ballard the following year, serving pristine oysters inside a pristine space. These two spots set the new standard, picking up the thread from a 2006 New York Times story about the Northwest’s bivalve boom, in which author Mark Kurlansky declared the “second Golden Age of the oyster.”

Today, Seattle finally is meeting its seafood destiny head-on. Passionate chefs, farmers and restaurateurs are shaping a new culinary landscape, one defined as much by the natural bounty in the waters around us as by homegrown creativity and ingenuity. In doing so, they’re paving the way for a healthy, renewable food source for generations, not to mention giving the Northwest wonderful new places to dine out. And more than ever, oysters are the main attraction.

*****

When asked about his technique for finding the form of David within a towering hunk of jagged marble, Michelangelo answered, “I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to other eyes as mine see it.”

He might as well have been talking about shucking an oyster.

“With oysters, I’m not a chef as much as I am a curator,” says Ethan Stowell, executive chef of Anchovies & Olives on Capitol Hill. “All I have to do is open them right and serve the best ones. A good oyster is perfect on its own.”

The oyster’s appeal comes down to purity of expression. The oyster is best appreciated in its natural state, sea-cold and raw, served on a limestone spoon of its own construction. The fruit of the sea—and unlike an organic apple or heirloom tomato, the oyster is very much alive when you eat it.

Eating an oyster is simultaneously carnal and cerebral, soul food and brain food. It delivers a quick, discreet experience—anticipation, sensation and satisfaction—all in a matter of seconds. (It also delivers hormone-inducing amino acids and the highest levels of zinc of any food, all of which are proven to jumpstart testosterone production. Packed with protein, phosphorous and magnesium, it’s good for women, too.) With every variety of oyster—and there are many iterations of style and species grown around the Puget Sound—flavor variables shift. As you chew, your palate parses the details.

“The oyster comes to you perfect, and if you have the tact and skill and respect for the oyster, you can keep it that way,” says Tommy Stocks, general manager of Taylor Shellfish in Melrose Market, over beers at Bar Ferd’nand on a recent afternoon. “But if you callously or mindlessly shuck something, you’re gonna take that perfection and ruin it.”

Stocks is a Seattle native whose mom grew up foraging oysters for stew from the waters of the Hood Canal. Without peeking into its shell, he can diagram the anatomy of an oyster—hinge, belly, muscle, mantle—like pointing to numbers on a clock. If you’re reading this story on a Sunday, chances are that right now Stocks is watching football at home on his couch with a plate of half-shell oysters on his belly instead of a bag of chips.

“I like to think I’ve learned a lesson for every oyster I’ve shucked,” he says, a number he estimates to be in the 220,000-range. “A collective memory. Because I find it so interesting to get them open. All I have to do is one thing, but I have to do it exceptionally well.”

The oyster is an opportunity for achieving grace, however brief. Properly presented, it illustrates the fundamental unity of man and his environment.

“And they’re beautiful,” says Renee Erickson, chef-owner of The Walrus and the Carpenter. It’s no accident that her restaurant radiates an almost celestial beauty. Its ice-white dining space is as lustrous as the inside of an oyster shell, buttressed with hefty wooden rafters that recall the backbone of a whale.

“A fluted Pacific is opalescent and rippled,” she says. “If you walk out on the beach and see them, they’re different and varied. A lot have stripes. I’m completely charmed with seafood and the beach so it’s not too hard of a reach to say that they’re just beautiful.”

Or as Leck puts it, “An amazing animal. God’s food.”

*****

Oenophiles use the term terroir to describe the influence a grape’s environment—elevation, moisture level, soil composition—has on a wine’s flavor. Ostreaphiles use its aquatic equivalent, merroir.

“It’s not a joke. It’s a real term,” says Marco Pinchot, Taylor Shellfish Farms’ community relations and sustainability manager. “Merroir is the regional flavor of the water that gets into the oyster.”

But water is water, no?

“No. There are so many variables: Where are the nutrients coming from? How deep is the water? What’s the substrate like? What’s the marine life around the oysters?”

Pinchot and I are looking out over the Totten Inlet, a narrow channel of calm, brackish water that extends from the South Sound, cutting between densely wooded, sparsely populated peninsulas in the south Puget Sound, a half-hour west of Olympia. Two of Taylor’s main aquaculture sites are set offshore from this shell-strewn landing. Pulling clunky rubber mud boots over our jeans, we board a flat-bottomed, 14-foot-long aluminum motorboat piloted by a big, smiling guy named Jeremy, a 34-year-old, 16-year Taylor veteran.

“This bay is really special,” Pinchot continues. “It’s so abundant with life and nutrients that oysters grow very quickly here and with a tremendous amount of regional flavor—the South Sound flavor. An earthy, deep flavored oyster.”

With a slight build and red goatee, Pinchot is an oyster zealot of rare breeding. His great-grandfather, Gifford Pinchot, was the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 and has a spectacular national forest named after him in southern Washington. Marco’s dad, Gifford Pinchot III, founded the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, the first grad school in the country to offer a MBA in sustainable business. After studying forest ecology and art at Evergreen and spending years as an environmental educator and outdoor adventure leader, Marco earned an MBA from BGI, which led him to Taylor. He’s a man ideally suited to his job description.

Over the course of an entire day, Pinchot leads me through the massive complexity of Taylor’s production process, a multi-national operation that yields 1 million pounds of mussels, 4.8 million pounds of clams, 700,000 pounds of geoduck and more than 33 million individual oysters a year. The company has been working in one form or another for over 100 years, and members of the Taylor family still check into work every day. Pretty much every piece of equipment the company uses—boats and farming rafts and sorting machines and massive storage tanks—is designed and fabricated at Taylor’s sprawling headquarters in Shelton. Despite the incredible volume at which the company operates—Pinchot conservatively estimates annual revenue at $50 million—it all seems relatively low-tech.

“I shy away from the word ‘industrial’,” Pinchot says. “It’s an industrial process but it’s pretty mellow. It’s not an iron smelter.”

Taylor has been recognized as a sustainable business, he says, and has set many of the environmental standards used across the entire U.S. shellfish industry.

“Oyster farmers were the original environmentalists back in the ’30s, before it was even a word. They were dependent on good water quality for oysters to survive. When the oysters started dying, they went to the state legislature to fight for them.”

The financial success of the region’s oyster industry depends of the health of the Sound. It’s a case of pragmatic conservation.

“You have people with a profit motivation for making sure the Puget Sound is healthy and clean,” Pinchot says. “It’s a given that we’re a strong employer in these rural counties and that we produce a premium product that other countries want. And we’re the canary in the coalmine for Puget Sound environmental issues.”

If that sounds like a party line based on a bottom line, it is. But in this case, healthy resource management benefits not only industry, but people. After all, there’s nothing stopping you, a regular person with a bucket and work gloves, from acquiring a shellfish permit, heading to any public beach in the state and foraging your own epicurean repast. All you have to do is know where to look.

“That’s why we teach people how to harvest and shuck oysters,” says Lissa James, co-owner of Hama Hama Oyster Company, a small, family-run operation on the west shore of Hood Canal. “It’s more than an economic interest—it’s in the cultural interest. This is our heritage.”

*****

Far away on Lopez Island in the north Puget Sound, Jones Family Farm is even smaller and more family-run. Nick Jones is a former Capitol Hill-dweller turned salmon fisherman turned shellfish farmer. Alongside his wife Sarah, he’s been raising oysters and geoduck—not to mention three kids—on a small, tideland farm for almost 10 years. The Jones’ ramshackle outpost is modest but impressively engineered—and the oysters and other animals they raise are beloved by Seattle chefs. It’s a food-lover’s production house on an island frontier.

In late August, the Joneses hosted a salmon bake and oyster feast for friends, family and colleagues, maybe 20 in all, including Nick’s silver-haired dad and the motley employees of Marinelli Shellfish, a respected exporter with offices in Seattle, LA and Bangkok. As he gave a tour of the 5.5-acre farm, Jones sounded like a post-grad, blue-collar Encyclopedia Brown—a quiet, 36-year-old man brimming with confidence, energy and know-how. Despite the blazing sun, he wore an orange, 1970s tab-collar button-down and big brown mud boots over Carhartt jeans. One arm of his glasses was fixed at the hinge with a snip of bailing wire—the kind of workaround a resource-short island-dweller would make.

Jones spoke at length of the history of one of his favorite foods, the Olympia oyster. The only species native to the West Coast, Olympias once flourished from California to British Columbia and were considered a delicacy, first to generations of Native Americans and later to immigrants pining for East Coast Virginicas. During the San Francisco gold rush, Olympias went for a buck apiece in Barbary Coast saloons. California quickly consumed its Olympia stocks and looked north, eventually finding rich beds around Willapa Bay in southern Washington.

Washington state’s first major industry, Jones said, was oysters. After statehood itself, the second measure adopted by the state legislature was allowing tidal flats to be privately owned. That resolution remains responsible for the Washington’s thriving shellfish industry—the country’s largest in terms of volume and revenue.

Around the turn of the last century, men made fortunes on Olympias—then lost fortunes when Olympias were overfished. By the 1930s, the timber trade, Washington’s second major industry, had taken over the South Sound. Toxic runoff poisoned estuary habitat and brought Olympias to the brink of extinction.

For years, the Olympia—tiny, delicate, richly flavored of grass and brine—was only a memory. So oyster farmers imported live stock from what remained of the East Coast Virginicas and, later, from Japan. Because the name “Japanese oyster” didn’t sit well with consumers during World War II, marketers rebranded it as the Pacific. Today, the Pacific oyster is the most commonly farmed, eaten and exported oyster on the West Coast.

Jones, however, stuck with Olympias, slowly reconstituted from age-old stock starting in the 1980s. For the most part, Olympias no longer exist in their native habitat—only on cultivated plots like Jones Family Farm, where they flourish in his little man-made lagoon.

That’s what brought Jones to this scenic, fertile, inconvenient island an hour ferry ride from the mainland. “This is the best place I’ve ever seen to grow shellfish,” he said.

The San Juans are a happy medium between the South Sound’s fast-growing, “murky” tasting oysters and Canada’s thin, slow-growing deep-water oysters. Jones found his spot after a lot of searching, a lot of luck and some kind of brazen pioneer spirit.

“As opposed to just about any other species of plant or animal that humans eat, we don’t know much about shellfish production, how to do all this,” he said. “It’s still very experimental.”

Why do it then? Jones is driven by survival on every conceivable scale.

“Oyster farming is the most benign form of protein production, compared to any other form of land agriculture or finfish aquaculture,” he said. “We call it controlled hunting and gathering.”

*****

On a balmy, ink-black Tuesday night, a friend and I are at Anchovies & Olives, enjoying “Oyster Power Hour” with half-price beers and a dozen Kumamotos on the half-shell. We’re sitting at a table outside the restaurant, overlooking a sleepy intersection at the summit of Capitol Hill. It’s close to 11 p.m. and summer is almost over.

I lift a Kumamoto to my mouth and consider its glistening, near-weightless mass.

This creature has flourished in ambiguity. Sexually speaking, the oyster is protandric, meaning it changes gender throughout the course of its life, depending on the demands of the local population. It lives in intertidal zones between land and sea, submerged underwater most of the day but exposed to the air for a few hours during low tide. It’s certainly an animal, though it lacks a central nervous system and secretes a limestone shell. Thousand-year-old Native American shell mounds the size of city blocks have been discovered around the world, but today, in the U.S., the oyster is something of an exotic edible.

More than that, the oyster is a conduit to a larger, unseen world. Slight as it is, it’s been growing for years, flexing its maw with the passage of innumerable tides, clutching some aquatic station not far from here, immobile yet powerful, straining microscopic, sunlight-fed nutrients by the gallon from the unfathomable sea.

It grows by its own animal nature. It’s harvested and sorted and delivered around the world in huge numbers by heavy machinery. But the final, fleeting step in a years-long process—opening it up and putting it on my plate—requires human hands. Nothing else will do.

Maybe it was born for this moment. It’s imparting to me something of its oceanic essence, a story of our collective past and possible future, an intricate system of which we’re both only miniscule parts, here, now, landlocked and dreaming.

There’s no more elemental example of man’s capacity for personal joy and communal benevolence than the oyster. It’s buried treasure, ours for the eating.

Pictured above, top: Little Gull, photo by Steve Korn; middle: the mussel farm at Taylor Shellfish's Gallagher Cove raft in Totten Inlet, photo by Nate Watters. 

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