Last week, I was visiting family in Seattle. My two brothers and I went to an oyster bar called The Walrus and the Carpenter, where we slurped some of the best oysters ever, hoisted from waters off Washington, and shucked without a speck of shell in the oyster cup.
Prior to this trip, one of the best oysters I'd ever had was pulled from the Lynnhaven River in Virginia seconds before it was shucked by Chris Ludford, owner and operator of Pleasure House Oysters. The oysters were bigger than I usually prefer, but so full of fresh flavor that I would gladly have eaten them all morning. As it was, I had about a dozen before lunch.
I remember to this day the exceptional oysters we had some years ago at Neptune Oyster in Boston, all of them pulled from water not far from the oyster bar. The oysters at Neptune we so good, we had a few dozen for appetizers…then again as dessert. Couldn't get enough of them; they were that good.
Oysters used to be shipped in sawdust to Chicago from the East Coast via the Erie Canal and through the Great Lakes. I've seen newspaper ads from the turn of the century touting that such oysters would keep for weeks. Maybe that's true. It seems likely, however, that every second out of the water is a second's worth of lost oyster flavor.
Oysters do, of course, live long after being extracted from the water. Out of water, however, they're no longer doing what they do for a living, which is to filter the water all around them (in this way, oysters actually improve the watery environment in which they live). But all that water coursing through them helps oysters develop flavor, and it keeps them tasting crisp and delicious. Oysters removed for the water and eaten, oh, a day or so later, have been sitting in their own liquor for all that time, and they're going to be just a little less fresh. They can still, of course, be delicious, just maybe not so delicious as they'd be if they'd been extracted from their watery homes just moments before.
All this has lead me to conclude that it's perhaps impossible to eat oysters at their best anywhere but near where they're harvested. This is not to say that oysters transported to this land-locked area are not good -- and I've eaten way more than my share at Poor Phil's -- but it seems the closer the table is to the water where the oysters grow, the better the oysters will be. Maybe this is an obvious observation, but in the past year or so, the difference between fresh-from-the-water and even a day-old has been dramatized for me.
In Seattle, we pulled into The Walrus and the Carpenter a little after 4PM and so were able to take advantage of happy hour (4-6), which meant half-price oysters, a very good thing as these oysters, all from Washington, were priced upwards of $4/each. I had a number of excellent oysters, but those from Otter Cove were probably my favorite. I'd had these oysters previously at Shaw's Crab House – the best local source of oysters in my opinion – and remembered them as being spectacular. Here, they were stratospherically wonderful, and I'm guessing their freshness had a lot to do with it.
The Walrus and the Carpenter is not a fancy place, but it's pleasantly appointed with a decent menu. My brother Kevin had the goat heart Carpaccio with pickled Saskatoon berries, which sounded interesting but was kind of stringy, iron-y tasting and not very exciting (despite the name). My brother Kim had baked clams with bacon in a tomato-based sauce and it was pretty good, but I have to say: nothing compared to the oysters, which is all I ordered at this afternoon snack (had two dozen and could easily have eaten twice that). Oysters of this quality, this fresh, are rare…especially outside of the areas where they're harvested, like the waters off Massachusetts, Washington State and Virginia. And it was in Virginia that I probably had my best oyster of the past year, pulled right out of the water by Ludford of Pleasure House Oysters, and put in my hand before the temperature of the oyster rose a degree or so higher than the temperature of the waters where it grew to become such a tasty thing.