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DTLA Oyster Festival finds pearls of old and new downtown vibe

The DTLA Oyster Festival that came to Grand Central Market on Saturday said as much about downtown Los Angeles as it did about culinary arts.

The festival fit smoothly into the ambience of the reviving Grand Central, the nearly 100-year-old open passageway from Broadway to Hill near 4th Street, that for decades survived as a sleepy hideaway for low-end food and produce stalls.

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FOR THE RECORD: In the Oct. 26 California section, an article about an oyster festival at downtown's Grand Central Market said the city of Montpellier was on the French Riviera. It is on the Mediterranean coast of France, west of the Rivera.

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Inside, five oyster farmers and their helpers stood behind a row of tables. For seven hours, they plunged short knives into hard, scaly shells and twisted to unlock the silvery nut of flesh that dissolves in the mouth like sea-flavored candy.

By 11 a.m., the market was packed to the breaking point with the new and the old of downtown: whole families of blue-collar workers, young hipsters with tattoos and ear wear, homeless people and tourists. Yes, tourists, drawn to downtown for reasons that didn't exist a decade ago.

Visual artist Erin Blayney came from Omaha, Neb. She was invited by her friend Anne Trumble to see the new Broad museum and to attend a farewell party for the historic and crumbling 6th Street Bridge. Their first stop was the Oyster Festival.

They sampled the Gray Pearl oysters of Sol Azul, a farm created by fourth-generation oyster farmer Phillipe Danigo, who abandoned his native Brittany because all the suitable coastline was already in cultivation.

Blayney and Trumble found the Mexican oysters a bit salty. They gave the nod to the peachy flavor of the Hama Hama oysters grown by fifth-generation farmer Justin Stang of Hood Canal, Wash.

And that is exactly the point, said Christophe Happillon, the festival's impresario.

"I tried to bring some oysters that had some specificity," Happillon said. "It's like tasting a wine. You can sit and decide which ones you like better."

Happillon, a native of Montpellier on the French Riveria, had spent seven years doing pop-up oyster bars at fine restaurants and hotels in Southern California when he decided to set down roots in Grand Central, a venue whose preponderance of Latin American and Asian fast-food stands might not have suggested a natural fit for farm-fresh oysters and expensive wine.

Undaunted, Happillon opened the Oyster Gourmet a year ago in a fanciful circular, open-air bar. Its cover of eight wood-and-canvas wings is a vaguely shellfish motif, something like the eight wings of the octopus, Happillon said.

Happillon's credentials list him as a Maitre Écailler, literally a shellfish master. But with a self-effacing attitude, he'd characterize himself more as a guy who's shucked a lot of oysters.

"I'm more on the side of the farmer," he said. "I'm not a restaurateur."

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His concept for the festival was humble too.

"I thought it would be nice to bring the farmer to the old lady that has been serving food for almost a century now," he said of the market.

By noon, the five farmers were already dipping feverishly into the supply of 4,000 oysters from farms as distant as La Paz and Cape Cod.

Oyster lovers and the merely curious were working their way down the row of tables, testing every variety.

Engaged-to-be-engaged couple Brian Bombarda and Jacqueline Kuriyoshi took the Metrolink from Orange County after learning about the festival on the website ILikeLA.

They consider themselves oyster beginners.

"We definitely like it," Bombarda said.

Allen Lavarias, a transplant from Washington who came to be part of L.A.'s booming drug recovery industry, happened on the festival by chance. He'd brought his skateboard on the Metro from Culver City for his first downtown outing.

Christopher Serafino, 35, and Danelle Sandoval, 24, just walked half a block from their home at 4th Street and Broadway, a jaunt they make every day for coffee. They slurped their oysters and moved on.

The festival continues Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. At 2 p.m., Happillon will lead a hands-on class in shucking.

It's really easy, he said. Just think of opening a paint can with a screwdriver.

Better to be early than late. The oysters could run out.

Leftovers don't do well on the trip home.

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