I’ve always felt it was particularly wonderful that Oak Park (the Town-That-Seems-Like-It-Should-Have-More-Good-Restaurants-Than-It-Actally-Does) could, for years now, support a place like Poor Phil’s that specializes in oysters.
In the mid-eighties, we would go to Poor Phil’s regularly for an oyster fix. In those days, oyster bars were less common in Chicagoland and otherwise entirely absent from Oak Park and environs.
Recognizing the paucity of local oyster outlets, and the likely lack of appreciation of locals for such oceanic tastiness, Poor Phil’s made an effort to educate their clientele by putting small nameplate flags into oysters, designating the different types on the plate.
Oysters are all basically the same creature, but where they grow up makes all the difference in how they taste.
In Australia last November, I had a chance to visit the Pure Coffin Bay Oyster processing facility in South Australia. It was enlightening. My guess is that people on both coasts are probably very familiar with oyster farming strategies; for me, it was a new experience.
Here are a few operational aspects that were previously unknown to me.
* Oyster boats (at least in this part of Australia) are not unloaded at the dock. Instead, the whole boat is pulled out of the water, onto a trailer, and moved to the oyster processing plant where the cages are unloaded, the oysters inspected and sorted.
* Oysters are raised in cages, lowered into the water, and removed up to six times during their growing cycle to enable oystermen to select the big ones and put back the little ones. I had imagined, naively, that when oysters were harvested, guys would go out to the reefs and cut oysters off their mooring points; that archaic technique is obviously too inefficient for larger operations.
* Oyster processing plants are not quaint fisherman’s shanties (actually, I knew that), but rather high-tech sorting facilities that use video imaging equipment to evaluate the size of oysters. Honestly, witnessing this entirely predictable reality kind of tarnished the romance of the whole oyster thing…but once I tasted them, it was love all over again.
After we toured Pure Oyster operations, owner Chris Hank, a big Dolph Lundgren-looking oyster man, generously shucked for us some of the most fantastic oysters I’ve had the pleasure to taste. I was shocked, at first, that he actually drained some of the liquor from the shucked oysters before giving them to us, because usually there's a lot to savor in that liquor. When I tasted them, I knew why he did so: these were incredibly salty, but still marvelously flavorful, oysters, with plenty cucumber and melon notes, and about as fresh as one could possibly hope to enjoy.
I had to ask our new friend, Hank the oyster shucker, what he thought of the gigantic oysters we saw served for $100 each at a local restaurant.
“A novelty,” he said, scrunching up his nose as though to suggest he felt these mutant monsters were neither very amusing nor very tasty.
We didn’t order any of the c-note humongo-oysters, but remembering the half dollar-sized beauties we ate at Pure Oyster – fresh with tongue-perking salinity and freshness – is going to stay in my taste-memory for a long time to come.
These are the kind of oysters that, if you've always been hesitant about eating them, would turn you instantly into an oyster enthusiast. I’ve never been too shy about oysters, and I have to attribute my abiding appreciation for them to Poor Phil’s, which schooled me in the way of the oyster years ago.
Pure Coffin Bay Oysters
9 Martindale Street,
Coffin Bay, South Australia