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Satisfying the Palate and Sports Hunger : Bicoastal Bivalves

In Paris, no reputable bistro worth its awning would be without its oysterman, a gloomy looking fellow who lurks just outside the restaurant, his big wooden crate filled with fresh, delicious belons or zeelands. And if you’ve a mind for mollusks, he’ll pry open a couple, leaving you to suck ‘em down right there in the street.

In New York, you find oyster epiphany at the counter in Grand Central Station’s Oyster Bar. Comforted by the sight of an army of shuckers, you can sit for hours tasting the fine differences between Bluepoints, Chesapeakes, Bristols, whatever is in season, and then finish off with a steaming bowl of velvety oyster stew.

In Los Angeles, though, it’s not so easy to find bivalve bliss. Like New England boiled dinners, oysters are considered by too many people as Easterner’s food. And when oysters are on the menu, they tend to come from anywhere but the West. At Tribeca in Beverly Hills (see accompanying review), a restaurant spokesman said, “We don’t use Pacific oysters, we think they’re too fishy.” It’s an oyster inferiority complex that’s hard to shuck.

But the tide is changing, so to speak. “Pacific oysters are finer, more evenly sized and more consistent in quality and flavor than ever before,” says Bill Marinelli of Marinelli Shellfish in San Francisco. Once maligned as too big and rubbery, Pacifics were considered, as A. J. McLane wrote, “of no great moment to gourmets.”

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West Coast oysters are different--"more salty and stronger in their initial flavor and aftertaste,” Marinelli says--it’s a difference worth getting used to.

That’s why Marinelli trudged to restaurants door-to-door during much of the early ‘80s toting fresh West Coast oysters. “When we first started,” he says, “we were giving away more than we were selling. People would say, ‘Oooh, there’s black edges!’ ”

It wasn’t until a few gutsy chefs with influence--Alice Waters, Jonathan Waxman, Wolfgang Puck--tried them and liked them that cynics paid much attention.

What changed? Very simply, the triumph of man over nature, which is ironic because it is man who got West Coast oysters into trouble in the first place.

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Before the turn of the century, the most common West Coast oyster was small and tasty and went by the name Olympia. (The Washington-state town got its name from the oyster.) In those years, oysters were plain-folks’ food. People downed them by the hundreds, and it wasn’t unusual to hear of hearty eaters who would warm-up for dinner with a pre-appetizer of 300-plus oysters. Such affection for what has been called the world’s most charismatic mollusk naturally led to overharvesting in waters all around North America.

And in the Northwest bays waste from pulp mills choked out most of the Olympias that were left. Attempts at growing Eastern oysters were tried but Crassostrea virginicas (the species that all Eastern oysters are varieties of) couldn’t survive in Western waters. Then cratefuls of large and sturdy Japanese Pacific oysters ( Crassostrea gigas ) were planted in bays along the coast until the imported breed took a liking to its surroundings and flourished. That was in the early part of the century, and for a long time the huge, rubbery Pacific was the only West Coast oyster that was widely available.

But thanks to new advances in aquaculture, Olympias are back, along with several new varieties with funny names (Hogs, Yaquinas, Kumamotos) that, oddly enough, are among the most highly desired varieties in Europe and the East Coast.

And there are more foreign species now being grown in the West. Ostrea edulis , known to most as belons or European flats; Crassostrea kumamoto (kumamotos for short); and a man-made species called triploids are now neighbors with Olympias ( Ostrea lurida ) and the new, improved Pacifics, which man and technology have made smaller and more delicious.

Next year, there will be a new Chilean species introduced ( Ostrea chilieancis ) that Marinelli says is sort of a cross between a belon and and Eastern oyster. “It’s very firm and meaty,” he says, “with a similar metallic aftertaste of a belon, but not as strong.”

Marinelli predicts that eventually all the world’s oyster species will be grown off the West Coast, making it the oyster capital of the world.

Now if only we could import a few Parisian oystermen. . . .


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