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Friday, February 15, 2008

the Shell Game

By G.A. Benton

"Down a dozen oysters and you start to feel a surge of well-being. It's not subtle; you feel as if you could run a marathon — or pin your dining companion to the wall," writes Rowan Jacobsen in his book A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur's Guide to Oyster Eating in North America.

I consider this fair warning that should one encounter Rowan in the flesh with a face full of mollusk and eyes wild with desire, then gang way!

On the page, though, Jacobsen — a staff writer for The Art of Eating, a top-notch food periodical — is generally in full control. His facile writing, with its heady mix of literary allusions, humor, observations of an expert palate, cultural anthropology and sound science, reminds me of Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) — a high compliment.

As Jacobsen explains, oysters have been at the head of the class when it comes to aphrodisiacs since at least Roman times. A gaze at Alive's interviews with local chefs (page 18) shows half of them included oysters in their ideal romantic menus. Why?

Jacobsen has several theories for the "Viagra in a Shell" perception. One has to do with an oyster's off-the-charts supply of zinc (zinc promotes human sexual hormone production).

In another, Jacobsen comments on the fact that oysters are "copious reproducers [who] expend themselves fully during reproduction." Fans of this sort of behavior, Jacobsen's thinking goes, might try swallowing a few in order to borrow some of that oyster mojo.

Flatiron Bar & Kitchen

129 E. Nationwide Blvd., Downtown



The Clarmont Restaurant

684 S. High St., German Village



Columbus Fish Market

1245 Olentangy River Rd., Grandview



McCormick & Schmick's

3965 New Bond St., Easton


The hot-n-heavy Jacobsen theory I most readily buy is that oyster-eaters are by nature "risk-takers." As Jacobsen writes, "Just go to an oyster bar, look around and know that you are among other sensualists, those who love delight and aren't bashful about embracing it."

Count me in that avid oyster-loving club. In the spirit of Valentine's Day and unabashed sensualism, then, I let the city be my oyster and slurped down some inspiring, briny bites in various guises. Here's a few notes.

Rich and poor

As Jacobsen suggests, oysters should never be fully cooked, just gently warmed through. The Flatiron achieves this with its outstanding Oyster Po'Boy sandwich. The Flatiron flash-fries loosely cornmeal-crusted mild Chesapeake Bay oysters so they remain tender and juicy.

About a half dozen get piled onto a good baguette dressed with lettuce, tomato and house-made remoulade sauce (mayo with a spicy pickle relish). This delicious combo might be oysters with training wheels, but it's still rich, satisfying, crunchy and an effective intro to oyster-eating.

Rock of Ages

Where else would I tuck into an old-fashioned dish such as Oysters Rockefeller than that blast-from-the-past Columbus classic, The Clarmont? Oysters Rockefeller is a preparation for people ready for the half-shell but reluctant to go raw. Fortunately, the Clarmont is careful not to overcook its Blue Points; it rapidly broils them in their craggy pearly castles, but first covers them in a suit of armor of sharp Swiss cheese, spinach and a bit of bacon.

The result is a nice char flavor on four medium-sized oysters (they get par-cooked, but don't go tough) under a heavy coat of melted cheese and seared spinach. It's another great oyster dish for relative beginners.

Alive & Unedited

Unquestionably, the most delectable way to savor oysters is in the raw. Are they still alive? Sometimes, but if so, they're deeply dormant.

In restaurants, raw oysters are generally served with cocktail sauce (clobbers their subtle flavors) and the preferred mignonette (vinegar, pepper and shallots). I don't use either.

Since nothing in the world tastes more like the place it came from than an oyster, it's best to order raw ones from a restaurant that sources them. With their geographically precise, daily-changing menus, the Columbus Fish Market and McCormick & Schmick's both qualify.

Expect East Coasters (like those from Prince Edward Island) to drop an exciting salt bomb on your tongue, while Pacifics (like Quilcenes) tend to be softer, sweeter and have a lovely cucumber finish. I recommend sampler plates from each place — they're like joyful wine flights but of pristine seafood. Now if you see Rowan roaming about while you're there, you've already been warned.

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