Pounded, Barbecued, on Tapioca- Mollusks on Manhattan’s Menus

The waitress set a plate down in front of me. In the center was a shiny, four-inch, perfect gray square. It looked like a tile made of glazed marble. I touched the tile with the prongs of my fork. It jiggled. When I lifted my fork, the tile came apart in limp pieces that draped off the tines like one of Dalí’s soft watches.

I called the waitress. “I think there’s been some mistake. I ordered oysters.”

“Those are oysters,” she said. “The chef pounds them flat between sheets of cling film. He shapes them into a square and he binds it together with gelatin.”

Of course.

I was having dinner at WD-50, Wylie Dufresne’s cutting edge, Michelin-starred restaurant on the Lower East Side. Of all the wild food I have tasted there (it was topped with diced apple, dried black olive and daubes of pistachio purée), this was the one dish that I will never forget.

Chefs like to improve upon oysters. At Per Se, I ate Caraquet oysters floating on top of tapioca custard garnished with Osetra caviar, a Thomas Keller signature dish called “oysters and pearls.” I had fried Malpeques with scallions and a barbecue vinaigrette at Rib, a diner on the far West Side. I had oysters served warm under a potato crust loaded with wasabi at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s recently closed steakhouse V. At Kurt Gutenbrunner’s Thor, Kumamoto oysters came with caviar and diced tuna. Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar served a “deconstructed Oysters Rockefeller” with puréed watercress and spinach crumbled with pancetta.

All well and good, but as far as I’m concerned, nothing beats a raw oyster, eaten from the shell, that tastes as though you’d dipped your head into the sea. I don’t even bother with lemon—just a little cracked pepper sometimes.

I ate my first oyster in New York City, at the age of 17, the day I arrived in the United States from England. I had sailed in on the Queen Mary, having stayed up all night to see the ship dock at dawn, and my mother took me to the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal. I sat at the counter in a daze, confronted by a dozen bluepoints, which we ate with a glass of cold white wine (my parents were oblivious of underage drinking laws and had served me wine with dinner since I was 13). It was the most nerve-wracking, exciting meal I have ever eaten (we wound up with cheesecake, which I’d never tasted before either). But I wasn’t really sure what an oyster was.

For a start, until I saw the menu at the Oyster Bar, I had thought oysters were simply oysters—one kind. So I was deeply impressed when a young man I went out with one evening boasted to me about a skill he’d learned in Paris. Blindfolded, he could tell the difference between a Belon and a Portugaise, a Marenne vert and an Ostend. Bets would be exchanged among his friends and the money triumphantly pocketed after he identified each one. I wonder how he’d make out at the Oyster Bar today, which now has over two dozen oysters listed on its menu.

Sadly, none of them come from New York, which a century ago was the oyster capital of the world (the closest they’re harvested now is Long Island).

In a fascinating new book, The Big Oyster, due out from Ballantine Books in late February, Mark Kurlansky (the author of Cod and Salt) traces the story of the New York oyster and the city’s world-famous oyster beds off Ellis Island, which in the 1880’s produced 700 million oysters a year. They were shut down in 1930 because of pollution. Before then, oyster bars were as ubiquitous as hot-dog stands, and on Canal Street, you could get “all you can eat” for just three cents.

As far as describing what an oyster actually is, before going into detail himself, Mr. Kurlansky quotes the nineteenth-century British Darwinist Thomas Huxley: “I suppose that when the sapid and slippery morsel—which is gone like a flash of gustatory summer lightning—glides along the palates, few people imagine that they are swallowing a piece of machinery (and going machinery too) greatly more complicated than a watch.”

Huxley lived in London, where in the late nineteenth century, according to André Launay, the author of Posh Food, an oyster brought fame and fortune to the owner of a restaurant. Awakened during the night by repeated whistling from the kitchen, he went downstairs armed with a stick. Eventually, he traced the whistle to a barrel of oysters in the corner. One oyster had a small hole in its shell. When it breathed, water was forced through the hole, causing the whistle.

“The next night,” Launay wrote, “the oyster set fashionable London alight, and its owner was host to Thackeray and Dickens, among a stream of other celebrities who came to listen to the musical mollusc while gobbling up dozens of its less talented cousins.”

Apart from the Oyster Bar in Grand Central, one of my favorite places in New York for oysters is Balthazar, where they’ll run you $14 a half dozen (as opposed to three cents for all you can eat). As for Mr. Dufresne’s famous oyster “tile” at WD-50, it’s not on this winter’s menu, alas. But there are mussels. Not moules marinière—these mussels come in an olive oil soup with coconut, water chestnuts and orange powder.