If I had an Oyster Bar
Jon Rowley / March 2012
Consider the oyster. Renowned expert Jon Rowley does all the time. Come join him as he describes his ultimate oyster joint.
Over the past 20 years I’ve had the good fortune to work as a consultant on a number of successful oyster bars in different cities. I thought it would be fun to conjecture what my own oyster bar would be like. We’ll call it J.R.’s Oyster Bar. How the world came to be my oyster and the oyster my world is the stuff of J.R.’s Oyster Bar.
To learn as much as I could about oysters became a quest after reading a short inspiring passage on eating oysters and drinking wine in A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s memoir of living in Paris in the 1920s. You can read the passage in J.R.’s foyer next to a portrait of Hemingway in a dark turtleneck. It ends “…and I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
And, indeed, I began to be happy and to make plans as a young man in Paris, starting at Le Dôme Café, a Hemingway hangout on Boulevard Montparnasse, with an order of 00 Cancales and a glass of Saint–Véran recommended by the waiter. I still remember the oysters’ meaty texture and slightly metallic tang. These, my first oysters, were ineffably satisfying, like good sex. Inspired, I pursued knowledge of the oyster business, from growers in Charente-Maritime to the Belon River estuary, from the vast halls of the Rungis market outside of Paris to the grand brasseries like La Coupole and Wepler and to the outdoor oyster stands seen outside restaurants throughout wintertime Paris. Appreciation of oysters on the half shell is deeply embedded in French dining culture. Seduced by and fascinated with oysters, oyster eaters, and oyster establishments in France, I returned to the United States with a passion and a good bit of knowledge, which I passed along to restaurants I worked with as a seafood consultant. With a knack for promotion, whenever I saw an opening I pitched restaurant clients on taking on oysters and oyster lore. The rest is history.
Welcome to J.R.’s
So here we are at J.R.’s Oyster Bar, located in a semi-industrial, gentrifying Seattle neighborhood. J.R.’s serves six to eight distinct types of oysters we procure from one grower in South Puget Sound, the Taylor Brothers, a family-run business for over 100 years. I like the romance of having 20 or 30 different oyster names on a menu, but I’d rather go with fewer so we can have a direct relationship with a grower who gives us the freshest oysters possible. J.R.’s logo shows a female figure not dissimilar to the original Starbucks logo, our homage to Venus, who was, after all, born in an oyster shell. We also have a simple white neon sign with five-inch block letters in the window that spells out O-Y-S-T-E-R-S, a beacon for oyster pilgrims. The interior is a fascinating amalgam of oyster history. I’m a serious collector of oyster memorabilia so I can change the wall displays from time to time. It keeps the staff and regulars reading. The better part of one wall is devoted, in gratitude, to my “Wall of Fame,” photographs (many signed) of people who have influenced or been an important part of my life with the oyster. I have been fortunate. And that dog-eared copy of A Moveable Feast I read so many years ago in Paris is framed behind glass, as is a plate from Le Dôme.
Large photos establish a connection with the Taylor brothers. One photo shows J.R.’s staff out on the farm posing with the brothers, who can be seen at the oyster bar from time to time. They like the place. They might even have a piece of the action.
Customers entering J.R.’s are greeted by an engaging oyster-loving host or hostess trained to quickly ascertain diners’ level of experience with the oyster. They engage accordingly. All hosts and servers can shuck. They will have met our grower and opened oysters on his oyster beds. They know what types came in that day. They are encouraged to recommend favorites—anything to welcome, engage, and reassure the customer. We want the customers to know right away that they are in the right place. The staff knows my history with the oyster, and they readily share it. The stories and giving customers the feeling of being in a story is part of the J.R.’s experience.
As soon as they clear the host stand—hopefully after a wait—they’ll see a U-shaped zinc oyster bar with happy diners eating oysters from iced platters elevated on wire stands, as is done in Parisian brasseries. The ones wearing bibs have ordered the cracked Dungeness crab. I’ve always maintained that customers are the best design feature in an oyster bar. Make them visible and amplify the convivial atmosphere with mirrors. We all like to people watch. There’s also a working display of oysters glistening in ice with farmers’ market–style signs denoting type and provenance. Ice isn’t necessary to maintain oyster quality as long as a restaurant has coolers at the right temperature. But it helps make the show, and ice reassures customers. Still, I don’t like to see oysters buried in ice. They are, after all, alive. Just enough of a sprinkle of ice to have ice melt running through the oysters and keep them moist. Plexiglass sheets divide the different types of oysters in the display. The shucker works a pile down and then adds more oysters from the cooler, where they are stored in sacks or boxes. I like the customer to see cold wet oyster shells while they are being shucked and when they arrive at the table.
J.R.’s also has eight bistro tables in the oyster bar area with six booths against the wall. We make room for musicians on Friday and Saturday evenings, usually some kind of blues. We call the night “Oyster Blues,” and when a group is playing, the servers wear “Oyster Blues” buttons. There’s another dining area with seating for 30 we close off if it’s not needed. The tables are made from two-inch planking from surplus Liberty ship hatch boards. In the summer, we use the same hatch tables in an outside dining area where we can seat another 30. We sell a lot of Mediterranean mussel platters outside; the mussels are in peak season, priced right, harvested in Totten Inlet, and we get them delivered every other day.
When “Oyster Blues” is not in session, we pipe in an eclectic collection of “oyster music.” You might hear Eartha Kitt’s sultry hungry-for-love voice that resonates with what we seek from an oyster. A Handel aria might be rocking the rafters, a fitting accompaniment for an uncommonly good oyster. Or it may be cool, introspective Charles Mingus, evoking a solitary walk on an oyster bed under a full moon at low tide. And speaking of walks, the restroom decor is simply a large framed illustrated copy of The Walrus and the Carpenter, the whimsical Lewis Carroll poem about how a walrus and a carpenter entice oysters to go for a walk on the beach with them and then proceed to eat every one. That’s my kind of walk!
Meet the shuckers
Our shuckers are J.R.’s lifeline, responsible for the greatness of the place. I remember the late Gilbert Le Coze showing me how he shucked at his Le Bernardin in New York City. If there was a flaw in the shucking, the oyster didn’t go out. I cost him some money learning his technique, which involved opening the hinge with the knife blade placed perpendicular to, rather than into, the hinge. I liked the method, but my hands weren’t big enough or strong enough. Le Coze’s uncompromising standard left an impression on me. I’ve since organized a number of shucking competitions, notably Anthony’s Oyster Olympics, which, during its 17 year run, asked competitors to demonstrate their skills with five species of oysters in different heats. Contestants got penalty seconds added to their time for flaws. My main shucker, David, is a competition champion, and like Le Coze would never consider putting a less than perfectly shucked oyster on a customer’s platter.
There’s never been a machine invented that can outperform a skilled human hand at opening an oyster. Shucking knives and shucking technique are a frequent topic of conversation around the oyster bar. Each shucker has a favorite knife; some have fabricated their own. David’s favorite has a pointed 2 1/2-inch blade designed by Xavier Caille of Belgium, the current world oyster-opening champion. It’s the same knife he used to win the crown last year at the Galway International Oyster & Seafood Festival in Ireland. There are several framed oyster knife displays, including some hand-forged over 100 years ago. Shuckers wear special heavy blue cotton écailler aprons sent over from Paris. I want the crew to look like the champions they are.
J.R.’s caters to those who revere and celebrate a just-opened oyster in its purest form. Now I know there are those who like cocktail sauce, mignonette, and various other condiments on their oysters. Oyster eaters seem to fall into two camps, those who do and those who don’t. Before opening J.R.’s, I took a poll on Twitter and Facebook, the modern oracles, and found out that a majority liked them cold and naked. I’ve been accused of being a purist. To that I say guilty as charged. So out of respect for the oyster, we present them without condiments, except for a half lemon covered with cheesecloth that I saw and liked in an old still life. The cheesecloth keeps seeds from falling onto the oyster. I rarely use lemon, but it’s the least obtrusive. Condioments can be fetched from a set-aside bar. And I don’t know if you could call it a condiment, but we serve crisp celery stalks in a glass of water with an order of oysters, another idea I pinched from a still life. A local French bakery makes the traditional pain de seigle (rye bread) to accompany the oysters. And, as in France, we serve the bread with a very good butter. The same bakery makes our crackly crusted baguettes.
Oysters, wine, and beer
As stated, having 20 or 30 varieties of oysters available is an impressive and commendable commitment to perpetuating the 2,000 year old tradition of calling an oyster by the name of its growing location, because, like wine, an oyster’s flavor comes from its locale. A number of prominent oyster restaurants offer such a selection. But we offer only six to eight types (oyster names can be confusing, which is why we use the Latin designation with the common one), including our native Olympia (Ostreola lurida) and the Totten Inlet Virginica (Crassostrea virginica), which has been heralded as the best oyster in the country. Others are likely to be Olympia Kumamoto (Crassostrea sikamea), two sizes of Totten Inlet Pacific (Crassostrea gigas), and Shigoku (Crassostrea gigas). Restaurants are required to retain shipping tags for 90 days. The tags show date of harvest, shipping date, farm location, species, and market name. At J.R.’s, the tags are displayed, which is as transparent as you can be about an oyster’s freshness and provenance.
The oyster menu includes a selection of Oyster Award winning oyster wines by the glass. I started the Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition, a dating service for West Coast oysters and wines, 17 years ago to find local West Coast whites to replace the Muscadets and Chablis most often served with oysters. The wines are blind tasted with Kumamoto oysters. After an extensive three city judging, the competition ends up with 10 equal Oyster Award winners. We’ll bring the 10 winners into J.R.’s, hold a staff blind tasting with oysters, and select those we want to recommend as by-the-glass “oyster wines.” Some past selections were Château Ste. Michelle Sauvignon Blanc Columbia Valley 2009, Brassfield Estate Sauvignon Blanc High Serenity Ranch 2009, and Van Duzer Estate Pinot Gris Willamette Valley 2010. They’ll be noted on the same sheet that lists the oyster selection. For the server, this is an easy sell.
Charles and Rose Ann Finkle of Pike Brewing Company, longtime friends and oyster enthusiasts, supply a pale ale, a porter, and a seasonal beer of their choice. Charles is a fabulous graphics artist and works with us on our various poster needs. The lore and mystique of the oyster is Charles’ graphic specialty.
Beyond oysters on the half shell, our menu is simple. We use freshly shucked oysters in our cooked oyster dishes; it makes such a difference.
Oyster stew: fresh shucked oysters, their liquor, whole milk, and a splash of Tabasco pepper sauce.
Original pan roast: Our version of oyster pan roast goes back to how the dish got its start in New York City when street vendors roasted oysters in the shell for the lunch crowd. By opening oysters ahead of time and “roasting” them in a pan, vendors could stay ahead of the line. A fancy pan roast has additions like cream, tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, or whatever the cook wants to add. Ours, though, is just oysters “roasted” in a dry pan until caramelized. No fancy additions like cream or toast. Just the original from the carts.
Hangtown Fry: Oysters, eggs, and bacon. The story is that a man condemned to hang in Placerville, California, during the Gold Rush ordered something made with the three most expensive ingredients at the time for his last meal.
Daily baked oyster special: Oysters baked in the half shell, according to chef’s whim.
Cracked Dungeness crab: The oysters share the stage in the display with whole cooked 2 1/2 to 3 pound Dungeness crab when available. I have a new way to crack crab, using a metal baton or any kind of solid implement to whack the legs over the long side of a brick so each segment comes out intact with no mess.
Steamed Manila clams: What we’re after here is the wonderful natural flavor of the broth of just-dug clams. For 10 pounds of clams, sweat a chopped onion, six garlic cloves, three sprigs chopped parsley, and several fresh thyme springs in olive oil (butter mutes the clam flavor), then a half-cup of water or white wine. This all cooks for two minutes before the clams are added. Once they open, add some more chopped parsley. That’s it.
Pan-fried oysters: Pat dry Pacific oysters; coat, in order, with flour (excess shaken off); egg beaten with oyster liquor, and fine bread crumbs; pan-fry in butter and oil until browned.
Mediterranean mussels marinière (mid-July though October): Sweat chopped onions in olive oil; add minced jalapeños, chopped garlic, minced basil, thyme, and parsley; cook two minutes; add two large chopped tomatoes; cook two minutes; add white wine and 10 pounds mussels; cook on high, partially covered, until mussels open; add more chopped parsley; serve with crusty baguettes.
Copper River king salmon (mid-May to mid-June): I introduced this fish to the market in 1983, so there’s some history here for our guests. We fly these fat-bellied succulent thoroughbreds directly from a fisherman friend in Cordova, Alaska. At $50 a plate, it’s expensive but we can’t keep it in the house. We brown the thick, olive oil–brushed steaks in a dry medium-hot skillet and finish in a 225 degree oven. Serve with Oregon Pinot Noir. It’s a religious experience.
Crab Louis (seasonal): Shredded iceberg lettuce topped with shelled Dungeness crab leg segments and garnished with a quartered lemon, a quartered tomato, a quartered hard-boiled egg, three green pepper rings, and a few black olives per serving. A Louis dressing (mayonnaise, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, anchovies, lemon juice, minced scallions, horseradish, chiles) is served on the side.
Caesar salad with fried oysters.
Strawberry shortcake (seasonal): made with Shuksan strawberries, old-fashioned drop biscuits, and fresh whipped cream in season.
J.R.’s famous seasonal fruit pies.
I remember having an oyster brunch with the late Sheila Lukins at Aquagrill in New York City one Sunday. I was stumped coming up with a line for a press release announcing the latest oyster wine competition winners. Right off the top of her head, she came up with this:
“Oysters are a celebration…romantic, sexy, luminous…The right wine makes them even more so.”
That’s J.R.’s in an oyster shell.