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?
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."
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.