Saturday, June 03, 2006

Oysters, Oysters, Oysters

Ever get a craving for deep-fried oysters? I have fond childhood memories of huge mounds of hot, crispy, golden-battered, five-spice-salted packets of ocean goodness. We would get them as one dish of ten in typical Chinese banquets in Vancouver Chinese restaurants back in the 80's. For whatever reason, it's no longer one of the standard dishes in vogue these days around town for Chinese banquets, and it's not really a dish that I tend to order when just having a small meal at a Chinese restaurant because when I do crave a deep-fried oyster, I'm only looking for one or two...maybe three if they're exceptional. This is perfect for a ten- twelve person table at a banquet. But if you order a whole plate of them for a few people at dinner, be careful with these suckers. Fried oysters are just so dense and fatty, the risk of OD'ing is right up there with candy corn (for me, that would be precisely seven kernals max, at a sitting. Eight pushes me right over to "the bleahs"). Same with Peking Duck skin. Trust me on this one - do NOT order an entire Peking Duck for just three people, no matter how much the three of you think you want it.

Anyhow, there have been a number of cooked oyster dishes in my dining recently, and the success of the dishes varied widely.

Look at this small dish below of breaded, deep-fried oysters at Kitanoya Guu with Otokomae in Gastown, which shocked me with the unnatural colour of their tartar sauce. Are oysters pretty in pink? I'm not sure. I think on this occassion I was just weirded out by the unexpected colour, though with the lemon slice, it should have made for a pretty presentation. The oysters were alright, but there are definitely more interesting dishes on their menu, and since I try not to order too many deep-fried dishes for any one meal there, my pick would be the deep-fried squid with spicy chili sauce. The other Guu, Guu with Garlic ( 1698 Robson St., 604- 685-8678) has a kaki mayo or oyster gratin, two small oysters served on the half shell, baked with a creamy sauce that is really delicious, and gets top priority when I'm there.

Fried Oyster with Pink (!) Tartar Sauce from the Guu in Gastown

I recently went to Horseshoe Bay Village, and had a late lunch at Ya Ya's Oyster Bar (6408 Bay ST., 604-921-8848). Can you go to a place called an Oyster Bar, and not get oysters? Well, actually, I might. Frankly, of the dishes we ordered, I was most impressed by their dry pork ribs. The Oyster Fritters ($10.99 for a half dozen) were okay, and served with both tartar and cocktail sauce, and the batter was crispy. Maybe I'm still longing for the very thinly battered (yet crispy) oysters of my childhood with the five-spice salt all over, but I didn't enjoy these as much as I thought I would.

Crispy Oyster Fritters, from Ya Ya's Oyster Bar

We also ordered their Oyster Platter ($10.99, half dozen), which has one each of their different baked oysters with sauce. We had a great time sampling all the topping combinations, but I found that most of the sauces overpowered the oyster itself. This might be a good dish for someone who doesn't actually like the flavour of oysters. And the fun factor alone almost makes the dish worthwhile, depending on your point of view. When it comes to enjoying the experience of a meal, sometimes it's not about the taste, but the tasting itself. You are also able to order a half dozen or dozen of each of the types. Here's the list:

The Ya Ya: spinach, cream, garlic, parmesan
The Bombay: seafood curry cream
The Lisbon: herb-roasted roma tomato coulis
The Fuego: Ya Ya's own hot chili and sauce
The Alexander: creamy seafood puree, sambuca, parmesan
The Rockerfeller: Ya Ya's sauce with bacon and cheddar melt

Oyster Platter, from Ya Ya's Oyster Bar

To give our palates a little break from the richness, we decided to go for a salad ($7.99) rather than a platter of fish and chips. It was definitely the right decision, as "the bleahs" were creeping in. Even our salad had little fried chunks in it though. In this case, they were breaded, deep-fried feta chunks. There was a pool of vinagrette at the bottom of the bowl, so the salad was a bit overdressed for my taste. But it's a fun salad, because the tomatoes were grilled, and the fried feta was interesting too. I kept intermittantly detecting a strange flavour in the salad that I wasn't enjoying but Bac'n Girl didn't get, and I was thinking it was an herb that didn't appeal to me. In the end, we decided it must have been a few rancid pine nuts. While most of the toasted pine nuts were fantastic, at least one was icky. Not something I'd expect to happen again there, but Name That Weird Flavour was an entertaining game to play, especially since I was sharing the dishes with a fellow foodie.

Fried Feta and Baby Spinach Salad with grilled tomatoes, cucumbers, carrot julienne, red onion, toasted pine nuts, balsamic vinegrette

Here's a picture of the dry ribs ($7.99). For me, these were perfect. Crispy, meaty, not too greasy, and heavily salted with coarse salt

Dry Ribs, from Ya Ya's Oyster Bar

Moving away from the deep fried, and heavily sauced, here are some grilled oyster options around. I finally made it to Go Fish! at Fisherman's Wharf at Granville Island when the stand was actually open (always thought of going either on a Monday or when it was too late at night), and it wasn't even that busy because of a bit of drizzle. I sat out on their patio, under an awning, and enjoyed a very nice oyster sandwich, their "Po' Boy," served with a little slaw on the side. I also had their special of the day appetizer, salmon brochettes with a sauce that I can't remember the name of, but I do remember enjoying its sweet and tangy flavour, as well as the apple slaw that accompanied it. The fish was wonderfully fresh, of course, and tender and moist (not overcooked).

Oyster Po' Boy, Go Fish!

Salmon Brochette, apple slaw, from Go Fish!

I've been meaning to make my way up to The Fish Cafe in Kerrisdale (2053 West 41st Ave, 604-267-3474) ever since visiting their booth at the Taste of the City event last September, 2005, where several restaurants showcased their food at the Plaza of Nations. I had a remarkably tasty little grilled oyster sandwich, and it was served up by very friendly people. I just got a good vibe from that experience, and it's enough to make me curious about their restaurant.

Grilled Oyster Sandwich, from Fish Cafe's booth at Taste of the City event, September 2005

If we're moving down from fried to grilled, then the last category must be raw. I must admit, I'm a bit of a newbie to raw oysters, and only really started eating them a few years back. I was initiated at some pretty respectable places though, and was thoroughly won over. I remember beautiful tiny, fresh oysters at C and Tojo's, presented as part of tasting menus, with very clean, refreshing dressings. I don't really order raw oysters on my own, but I can definitely appreciate them when they're put in front of me. Should we even bring up the aphrodesiac question? I wouldn't know - my guess is that everything served at C is an aphrodesiac. Now there's an endorsement! While I don't have any more to say about the effect of the oyster on the sex lives of humans (and I'm never one to knock a placebo effect, anyway. If it works, it works...and a little extra zinc won't hurt anybody), here's a word on the effect of humans on the sex lives of oysters. Apparently, the real reason behind the idea of avoiding eating oysters in the months without an "r" in the spelling (i.e. May, June, July, August), is not because they will be dangerous to eat in the summertime, but that they less tasty when they are gearing up for reproduction. In the late spring, oysters, like many creatures, become more interested in sex, and turn 80 percent of their body weight into sex organs, which happen to be thin, watery and tasteless to us. Interestingly, they will assume one gender for the season, and can change genders in following seasons. It's probably best to leave them alone more during this time anyway, so that they can make more baby oysters in peace. At the end of the summer, when the weather gets colder, they lose interest in sex, and reconvert their bodies, and become rich in glycogen and salts, making them fat and tasty again. Bacteria do generate faster in warmer months, but since much of our oysters are heavily regulated and farm-raised anyway, this isn't really a problem these days. It should,therefore, be safe to eat oysters any time of the year, but they will likely be plumper and taste better in the non-summer "r" months. So if you do eat some oysters this summer, I've got a couple of experiments for you. Try to make note of the size and taste of them now, and do a comparison in the winter to address the effect of the oyster's sex life on the quality of the oyster. As for addressing the effect of the oyster on the quality of human sex life, I'd better just leave the procedures to you.


Tai said...

Isn't it a pity that in the midst of summer, just when the thought of a bed of raw oysters nestled sweetly on a platter of ice is MOST enticing, they have to go and gender-switch.
Damn them!

I have a didn't note anything on Rodney's Oyster Bar in YaleTown.
Any reason?

I, for one adore (to the point of salivating when merely thinking of them) their pan-fried oysters.
I think they do them in a thin panko breading...but whatever they do, they've got me hooked.
(And their raw selection is really good too!)

Dumpling-girl said...

Wanda said...

"Ah yes, the deep fried banquet oysters. They seem to have been replaced by
deep fried crab balls with the claw sticking out. Sadly, I never really
liked the oysters as a kid, and now that I do, I hardly ever get them. At
least I had my fill of abalone before it made the endangered list! ;)"

(Posted by Nancy for Wanda due to technical difficulties).

Dumpling-girl said...

Thanks Wanda and Tai for your comments! Yup, there is a reason for not noting Rodney's - I've just never been there! Thanks for the note on their pan-fried oysters. I'll keep the place in mind! Like I said, I've never been one to tend to order raw oysters on the half shell for myself, so going to Rodney's hasn't really jumped to mind when looking for a place to dine.

As for the Chinese banquette, I think the crab claw/shrimp fritters are fun, and I generally enjoy them, but they're not nearly as satisfying as a well-executed deep fried oyster.

Just one more note, in defense of Ya Ya's: Bac'n Girl noted that she quite enjoyed the crispy oyster fritters and likes a thicker batter than I do. Man, I'm getting a deep-fried oyster craving again, just writing about it again...