A South African friend turned me on to his country’s native Knysna, a pearl of an oyster, nutty and creamy and utterly unique. In Brazil I tried the Chilean borde negro, with its inky-black-rimmed meat and face-slapping saltiness; some years ago it was sold in the United States, but seems to have disappeared since. If you find any, let me know.
I also discovered some unforgettable oyster venues. Paris has, of course, Bofinger, the 1864 Alsatian brasserie off the Place de la Bastille, with its Belle Époque interiors and bow-tied waiters and sidewalk troughs piled high with Fines de Claires, seaweed, and melting ice. But it also has L’Écume St. Honoré, a folksy bar à huitres near the opera house, with cheesy murals of Mont-St.-Michel and piped-in recordings of seagulls. Sophisticated it is not, and yet I’ve never had Belons so pristine. They give you a pail for discarding the shells—a reminder that in France oysters are still an informal, workaday food. (The French reportedly eat 4.4 pounds of oysters per person per year, more than any other people in Europe.)
In Sydney I went three times to the Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay, an oyster’s throw from the Sydney Fish Markets—partly because its Sydney Rocks are sensational, but also because it was the only place I could find that shucks them in-house. Seriously: in Australia oysters are shipped to restaurants “pre-shucked,” stacked like so many teacups in refrigerated crates. This outrageous practice rids the oysters of all their precious liquor, which is half the point of eating them. (For shame, Australia, for shame!)
In London I braved the supercilious maître d’ and exorbitant prices for oysters at Wiltons, a 267-year-old stalwart in St. James (jacket required). The sand-colored walls are hung with portraits of the restaurant’s master shuckers, including Thai émigré Sam Tamsanguan, who won the ’99 world championship for speed-shucking. (He opened 30 in 3 1/2 minutes.) At Wiltons Tamsanguan works at a more measured pace, and he carefully set me up with a dozen British “natives,” a variety of the rare European flat oyster, which has a round, scallop-like shell, a fibrous, almost crunchy texture, and a tangy, metallic aftertaste. They arrived on a dimpled silver platter, with a half of lemon wrapped in cheesecloth—a thoughtful touch—and a generous pour of Sancerre.
Just south of Galway, Ireland, on a weir beside a river that runs into Galway Bay, I spent a blissful afternoon at Moran’s Oyster Cottage, an 18th-century tavern—all pine wood and thatch—immortalized in Seamus Heaney’s poem “Oysters”:
Our shells clacked on the plates
My tongue was a filling estuary.
As boisterously democratic as Wiltons is exclusive, Moran’s feels like some family’s rowdy, boozy reunion. And its Irish Rocks are fabulous: the outer shells fuzzy and green; the inner nacre a blinding white; the meat resembling (and even tasting like) delicately grilled eggplant. Afterward you can stroll beside the estuary to the beds where the oysters are raised.
There’s something spiritual about eating food steps from where it was born. But the most extraordinary oyster bar I visited lies nowhere near a working oyster bed. Rather, it sits atop a high-rise hotel in Kowloon. Because of Hong Kong’s relatively open import laws—and also because rich mainland Chinese visitors will pay through the nose for this sort of thing—the Sheraton’s Oyster & Wine Bar is able to source oysters from all around the planet. On any given night you might find specimens from Tasmania, Oregon, British Columbia, Colchester, Long Island, Brittany, Japan, New Zealand, Namibia—Namibia!—Chile, even Irish Rocks from Galway Bay. (For all I knew they came from Moran’s.) Reading the menu is like scanning the arrivals board at Hong Kong Airport. Indeed, the Sheraton’s Oyster & Wine Bar may be the least green restaurant on earth: every item on the menu takes at least a four-hour flight to get here. (Because of pollution concerns, Hong Kong’s own oysters are no longer eaten raw.) Except for the stirring views of Victoria Harbour, there’s nothing “local” about the place. But for oyster-chasing obsessives like me, it offers a chance to see the world—or at least taste it—in two dozen slurps.
The Namibian turned out to have a mouthfeel like a cream-filled donut, less oyster than oyster mousse. The Fine de Bretagne was a coppery, ornery beast, the size of a small banana. The Tasmanians were in even better condition than those I’d had in Australia; same with the Colchesters and Oregon Kumamotos. Here was final proof that oysters—stubbornly sedentary for most of their lives—can actually travel quite well, safely sealed in their shells and bathed in their own life-sustaining liquor. If properly transported and stored, an oyster will survive for weeks out of the water, and should lose little of its character in transit.