Don’t believe the hype. Summer oysters suck. There is a prime time for eating Pacific bivalve mollusks – it’s called winter. And here in British Columbia, the season is just beginning.
In this column, I have previously suggested that local oysters can be seriously slurped all year round. Sorry, I was wrong.
After 12 months of taste testing, I’ve concluded that it does not matter how deep the seeds are cultivated or what kind of non-spawning hybrids are used. If ocean currents aren’t icy cold, the flesh just doesn’t firm up as densely or absorb all those flinty, vegetal and fruity nuances from their watery terroir (some call it merroir).
To me, even shoulder-season oysters taste milky, flabby and bland.
And thanks to global warming, we can no longer rely on the old adage about eating oysters only in months that contain the letter “r”. Here we are in mid-November and heavy rainfall has recently closed great swaths of harvesting up and down the coast.
Given the relatively paltry raw-bar selection, this may not be the best time to review all the new oyster eateries swinging off Vancouver’s hinges.
On the flip side, it could be a great opportunity to test the mettle of local shuckers being forced to source and slice outside their comfort zones.
296 Keefer St., 604-684-3300; oysterexpress.ca Buck-a-shuck: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 4 to 6 p.m.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for this simple plywood-lined room on Chinatown’s eastern edge. Open since May, it still has not secured a liquor licence. Without booze this far off the beaten track, owner Shawn Chesney had better deliver more than just decent ginger tea. A 10-year shucking veteran, he helped me choose what I thought were three distinct oysters: delicate, cucumbery, deep-cup shigokus from Washington State; sweet, gnarly, beach-hardened Buckley Bays; and big, briny Atlantic Malpeques. “Where should I start?” I asked when he delivered the tray. “It doesn’t matter,” he replied. “If you add enough sauce, they all taste the same.” Seriously?
Chewies Steam and Oyster Bar
2201 W. 1st Ave., 604-558-4448; chewies.ca. Happy Hour ($1.50): Monday to Sunday, 5 - 6 p.m.
This New Orleans-style bar opened in Kitsilano almost a year ago. It would appear that the crusty, chewed-up menus haven’t been wiped since. The shuckers here used to be friendly and knowledgeable. Nowadays, they’re just belligerent. Or at least Mr. Snarly was. When deciding on a half-dozen, this particularly rude shucker told us there was basically no difference, flavour-wise, between a Little Wing (small, sweet and deep-cupped from bag-culturing in Desolation Sound) and a Fanny Bay (salty, thick-shelled and tray-raised near Comox on Vancouver Island). Really? When questioned about this, he rolled his eyes (for the first of many times) and said: “Look, I’m not trained to know how they’re grown.” Later, when I commented on a kusshi tasting more briny than usual, he told me I just had not had enough to drink yet.
Rodney’s Oyster House Gastown
52 Powell St., 604-685-2005; rohvan.com. Low-Tide ($1.50) Special: Mon. to Sun., 3 to 6 p.m.
Rodney’s in Yaletown has long ruled the local oyster scene. About a month ago, a second opened in Gastown. It’s kitted out similarly, in brick and white-clapboard. Wine is poured in tumbler glasses filled to the rim. And the boys behind the bar (Rodney’s hires only male shuckers) are just as infamously flirtatious, wearing T-shirts that read “Suck Me Off” and “Eat Me Raw.” Being one of the busiest oyster houses, Rodney’s is able to offer a premium selection even in dry times. For something different, try the massive Joyce Points (a West Coast oyster that’s as big and briny as an East Coast Malpeque.
Merchant’s Oyster Bar
1590 Commercial Dr., 604-258-0005; merchantsoysterbar.ca. Buck-a-shuck: Tuesday, 5 p.m. – close
Warm and welcoming, this tiny oyster bar on Commercial Drive (where Divino’s used to be) feels like a real neighbourhood joint. It’s run by the same owners as Cork & Fin in Gastown. The selection of raw oysters, piled on ice under a big mirror behind the bar, is not the largest variety in town, but it’s well-rounded. The truffle-and-cream baked oysters are divine. Weekly changing blackboard specials include creamy bacon clams, tuna poke and more.
The Fish Shack
1026 Granville St., 604-678-1049; glowbalgroup.com/fish-shack. Buck-a-shuck: Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. - 5 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 10:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Now here’s a serious oyster bar for geeky aficionados. Brought to you by the Glowbal Group in the old Sanafir location, it’s a casual rendition of Coast. Ian Peck, former title holder of the Canadian Oyster Championship, will gladly engage in passionate conversation about the clean finish on a Hernando, the different growing methods for a Little Wing and a Shake Spear, the overrated Kumamoto. Beyond oysters, go for the fried smelts, kettle-steamed mussels and the fisherman’s catch served with mallets and bibs.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article credited Eamon Clark, not Ian Peck, as the Canadian Oyster Championship shucker who works at The Fish Shack. This version has been corrected.