The Love List

est. 2006

Strange Bedfellows

JUNE15, BOOZEJess Graves
The oyster bar at Chef Angus Brown's LUSCA in Atlanta.

The oyster bar at Chef Angus Brown's LUSCA in Atlanta.

Words: Jess Graves | Photos: Caroline Fontenot

At Chef Angus Brown and Nhan Le’s Atlanta restaurant LUSCA, three of the world’s rarest and most interesting oysters get slutty when introduced to their boozy soulmates. 


Oysters and I have had a thing for some time now. Aside from gin, my dog and a few key people, you might say its one of the most stable relationships I've got. I was raised in the Florida Panhandle, where Apalachicolas were cheap and plentiful, but it wasn't until I landlocked myself for the first time in my life, by moving to Atlanta, that I began to explore the world of oysters that weren't shucked from a cooler on my parents' porch.

There is so much going on inside the seal of an oyster shell. Meat and liquor, sure, but also romance, sentimentality, gluttony and sex. Aside from their flavor of course, I think it is their contradiction I love the most. They're at once sinful and good, clean fun. The lusty process of prying one open reveals a wet and willing interior, but its first salty kiss is what makes you fall in love. They can be high cotton or low brow, served clean on a grand, icy tier or spread across an old picnic table like a piggy trough. 

Speaking of liquor, there is no better bedfellow for an oyster than a little booze. Jimmy Buffet may have preferred beer, but we aren't eating oysters from a cooler today. Chef Angus Brown is the creative force behind Atlanta's LUSCA restaurant, which boasts a healthy oyster bar that is entirely his baby. After selecting three of the rarest and most interesting of his cockled collection, we sat down with General Manager and Beverage Director Stuart White to see just how quickly an oyster would get slutty (you know, open up) with the right drinking buddy. We all get looser with a little liquor in us, right?

The oyster bar at LUSCA boasts a constantly-rotating selection of sustainable oysters, tirelessly sourced by Chef Angus.

The oyster bar at LUSCA boasts a constantly-rotating selection of sustainable oysters, tirelessly sourced by Chef Angus.

A Drink That Submits

"Wine pairing isn't an exact science, but a good place to start is to pair foods with wines form the same region."

White stands at the head of the table, pointing out the nuances of the sake in his hands. Brown is seated at the other end, three rapt students between the two, myself included. White's teaching stance and encyclopedic knowledge have earned him the nickname "Stuniversity." Class is in session.

"Generally, the other way to do it is to pair an acid and a fat or a bitter, or something sweet and tart, and so forth. But pairing sake is completely different. The Japanese feel the beverage should support, not complement the food. It's supposed to be the delicate foundation for the food to be built on."

The sake in front of us today is a sparkling Nigori (a word White tells us roughly translates to "cloudy," named for its appearance, which is due to the unfermented rice solids remaining in the sake) from Hakkaisan, a brewery in Niigata which is located on Japan's main Honshu Island, facing the Sea of Japan. 

Much like the oysters sitting beside it, sake's flavor varies greatly by its terroir. The geography and climate of Niigata give Hakkaisan's sakes a distinctly clear taste due to the area's consistently low temperature during the winter. Heavy snows give way to a slow melt on neighboring Mt. Hakkai and, because it doesn't travel through the earth, the resulting water is very soft. That water is brought to Hakkaisan's Kura (sake factory) from the foot of the mountain via pipeline, which ultimately produces a high-quality sake with smooth, sweet, fairly dry flavor that doesn't disturb the taste of the food it is being served with.

White thinks Hakkasan's Nigori sake is particularly well-suited to the Belon oysters (sometimes called European Flats) Chef Angus has shucked for us. Belons are so incredibly dominant in flavor that they demand the naturally-submissive personality of sake. They are strong, metallic, fishy, and taste slightly of zinc, so our tongues welcome the sweet effervescence of sparkling Nigori. I love them. Others at the table crinkle their noses as the Belons slip down their gullets. 

"People either love these or they hate 'em." Brown says. "The flavor is really in your face, it lingers."

Getaway Kids

Originally from the Belon River in France, in the 1950's, scientists began seeding the Belon oyster in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Or so they tried. Seeing no growth, they threw in the towel. But, as Rowan Jacobsen quips in his indispensable field guide A Geography of Oysters, "The oysters, however, did not." They clacked their way to escape, establishing outlaw colonies all over Maine. Belons began wild, and had every intention of staying that way.

Offspring of the first jailbreak still thrive in the wild, rogue and bawdy as their flavor, clenched and stubborn, bitterly battling the water year after frigid year. Only about five thousand are pulled from that water annually - sustainably, by hand, something Brown feels convicted about - which makes them one of the rarest in the world.

 

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Oh, the Lord's been good to me.
And so I thank the Lord
For giving me the things I need:
The sun, the rain and the appleseed;

Isastegi Sagardo Cider is made from apples (duh) in Spain's Basque country and aged in kupelas (old, large, oak cider barrels). What began as a small hobby operation out of a family farm has become the Isastegi estate's sole function. In its homeland, it is properly administered by an escanciador, pouring the cider long and from a height, which allows the movement of air into the glass. 

Live vinegar cultures give Isastegi a sour, fermented bite in the nostril. A new cider drinker may well be too faint of heart at first whiff, but it is far less offensive on the tongue. Paired with something salty, it's suddenly bright and fruity, which makes it perfect for caviar, ham, roe and yes, oysters - Wianno oysters, in our case.

Liquor is Quicker

Wianno is on the southern coast of Cape Cod, where its oysters are hand-harvested on shelves. That means they experience low tides, so they see plenty of sunshine, which gives the shell its green color. Always about 3 inches, they're plump and burst with salt when they first hit your tongue. They're not as potent as the Belons, but still plenty briny, and their cups runneth over with good liquor. 

There are many methods of harvesting oysters, all of which have their merits, all of which are dictated by the terroir (there's that word again) of the area and, if they are farmed, allow the flavor to be controlled to some degree.  

"Harvesting is like a stopwatch." Says Brown. "I spend half my day doing direct sourcing, many of the places I get my oysters are picky about shipping, which can get expensive, so you have to buy a hundred pounds at a time to make it worthwhile. And once they're harvested and here, storing them is a whole other thing. Most people think you put them on ice, but we only do that when we're serving them. When you put an oyster on ice, it wakes up and opens a little. You don't want them to open. You want them to stay shut tight. You want them to maintain that seal, so that they don't lose their liquor, because you can't replace it. So really, you want to store them in the dark, under a damp towel. You want to let them sleep."

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First Hit's Free

Class wraps up with the mildest oyster of the afternoon, Black Points from Nova Scotia. They have a nice salinity, but are far from overpowering. They're blonde and carefree. I'd call this one a "gateway oyster" - it's a great starter for someone who's never had one before, but the biggest snob can enjoy it too. If oysters were hustled on street corners, Black Points would be the free first taste.

"People tell us this one has the vague aftertaste of cucumber." Brown says.

Sure enough, right at the end, there's a crisp, vegetal note. I think to myself that this oyster makes me want a gin and tonic, but White has grander ideas. 

He wanders back from the bar with a cocktail in a tall glass that is decorated with a big-breasted lady in a bikini top and hula skirt. It's got two straws and a blue umbrella tucked inside. The tiki glass contains pineapple juice, coconut, and both St. George and Tempus Fugit Spirits' Vieux Pontarlier absinthe. It tastes like a delicious a licorice jelly bean. A perfumed, minty one with some anise. 

Two Heathens

"We're calling this one the Bedford Avenue" He says, "we named it for the street in Williamsburg where Maison Premiere, the old-school New Orleans-style oyster bar, is located. Basically, it's an absinthe piña colada. Absinthe and oysters are a very classic French pairing."

Quite the hedonistic pairing, too. Absinthe used to be blamed for madness after all, and oysters are touted as an aphrodisiac, though their sexual voodoo is up for debate. 

I myself am a believer. Oysters are sinner's food - the meal of drinkers and revelers, consumed in bars and dark restaurants by old salty dogs and paramours imagining one another undressed. On a dinner of a dozen, mixed with the green stuff, you have one hell of a magic potion for bad behavior. Absinthe and oysters, indeed. If there was ever a recipe for wreckage, I think that is it.

LUSCA is located at 1829 Peachtree Rd. NE in the Ansley area of Atlanta. Reservations are available on OpenTable.