Raw Oyster Cult

Shuckers serves 'em plump and fresh, R or No R.

Oysters are strange. For example, they change sex throughout their lifetime. Imagine that: One day you're a female, and then you wake up the next morning and you're a male. Oysters can also appear to be a little strange just sitting in their half shell. Even some of the most seasoned food lovers abstain for fear of . . . well, I'm not exactly sure what they're afraid of, but it probably has something to do with the fact that they're apprehensive about swallowing a raw, slippery, living bivalve. Admittedly, oysters have a unique texture, but as far as I'm concerned, the less time you spend twirling them around on your fork and examining them, the better they are. I grew up with a marine biologist for a father and even I am not completely enamored of their outward appearance. And while Shuckers may sound like a strip-mall dive, it is actually a very elegant, carved-oak saloon in the Fairmont Olympic Hotel, and it's a great place to just toss an oyster back and enjoy. It's generally accepted that oysters are best when they're plump and firm— particularly when they're eaten raw—and during their spawning cycles they are typically, and tragically, unplump and unfirm. Since oysters spawn in the warm summer months, this is where we get the adage that oysters shouldn't be eaten in months that do not contain the letter R. But Fairmont executive chef Gavin Stephenson says that what really matters is water temperature, because in cold water, oysters aren't likely to spawn. (Anyone who's foolish enough to have tried swimming in certain deep bays of Puget Sound knows that even in R-less months, the water can feel like melted ice, and anyway, oyster farmers all over have developed ways to grow their crops in the coldest waters possible. Problem solved.) Shuckers claims to sell somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,600 shuckables each week; they offer 15 varieties and eight preparations. Stephenson says the restaurant strives to be "authen­tically local" in selecting which oysters to serve, but he says that Pacific red tides often push his team toward using Atlantic varieties instead. Stephenson says that ultimately, "taste really dictates [which] oysters are served," so Shuckers changes their selection two or three times a week in order to accommodate the best crops. There's a lot to know about oysters, but at Shuckers you're paying $16.50 per dozen for someone else to know all this stuff so that you can just eat away. Of the various preparations offered, our favorite were naked and raw, served on packed ice and bathed only in their own liquor and topped by a few turns of the pepper grinder. But newbies shouldn't be overly ambitious. Try a half-dozen cooked first, and take it from there. Like most oyster purveyors, Shuckers also offers them by the half-dozen ($8.95) or even one at a time ($1.50), so you can, and should, experiment with their menu—even if you're already an experienced oyster eater. Of the cooked options (all priced at $16.50 a dozen), Shuckers' sumptuous version of oysters Rockefeller was our favorite. It's just hard to beat a classic. Wonderfully crusty from the broiler, ridiculously rich (hence, the name) with butter and garlic, and rounded out nicely with spinach, these oysters were top-shelf. The house-smoked variety were rich in another way: The comparatively subtle sea-salty essence of the oysters is perhaps a bit over­shadowed by the wonderfully highbrow take on backyard barbecue flavor, but that's the beauty of ordering these things in sixes. Shuckers' summer specialty is oysters Olympic, served gratinéed with crab, garlic, spinach, and a rich tomato béarnaise sauce. Although they weren't available yet when we were last there, if we know chef Stephenson—who just returned from a victorious stint at New York's James Beard House—they'll be special, indeed. Although we could have easily made a meal of oysters alone, we couldn't leave the dining room, which feels like a wealthy uncle's study in a grand old East Coast estate, without sampling from the fresh board. Pan-seared scallops ($25.95) were—no big surprise— perfectly prepared, and a light touch of basil and lemon practically made them sing. Shuckers was running halibut specials at the time (last we checked, they were on to the ubiquitous Copper River salmon run), and again, a black pepper crusting and the to-the-T preparation of ours ($17.95) were perfect. Both entrées came with creamy mashed potatoes spiked with unique choices of cheese, but having succumbed, perhaps optimistically, to the summer months in the past week or so, the accompaniments for most special entrées are now lighter—grilled sweet corn and asparagus ratatouille and the like—and more considerate of bathing suit season. lcassidy@seattleweekly.com Shuckers, 411 University St., 206-621-1700. DOWNTOWN SEATTLE. Lunch 11:30 a.m.– 5 p.m. Mon.–Sat.; dinner 5–10 p.m. Sun.–Thurs., 5–11 p.m. Fri.–Sat.

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