Savoring Seattle's Shellfish

Four tasty reasons to be thankful for perpetually cold water.

Surrounded by water, Seattle is convenient for many things: scenic views, pleasure boating, commercial shipping, and easy access to world-class shellfish. The geoduck that goes for a small fortune in China starts right here on our beaches, and not only is it fresher, it's a heck of a lot cheaper. So this summer, don't forget to enjoy the water's tastiest treats. If you're not sure how, worry not—we've got the four best ways to stuff yourself with shellfish:

Choose your chum at Sea Garden. From the outside, you might assume the International District's Sea Garden (509 Seventh Ave. S., 623-2100) was a run-of-the-mill Cantonese restaurant. A quick peek inside the door will teach you otherwise. Geoducks, in their full phallic glory, hang out in a pristine tank in the entryway. Next to them are large, fresh Dungeness crab, as well as spot prawns in another tank, if they're in season. The crowds of people in the dining room digging into cooked versions of these creatures, up to their elbows in sauce, will smile and nod you into the room—but not before you've picked out your favorite critters from the tank.

The specials are a great place to start; dishes like crab with black-bean sauce and salt-and-pepper prawns are designed to let the seafood command the stage. But even among the more ordinary menu items, like the always-mysterious chow mein, you'll find whole prawns, expertly cooked and still full of sweetness from the sea. Now in its third decade in a neighborhood filled with Chinese restaurants, Sea Garden has shown that Seattle won't stop sitting down to fresh shellfish.

Pay homage to Taylor Shellfish's shrine of the sea. No food mecca would be complete without its temple. In Seattle, that's Melrose Market, an architectural ode to all things edible and local: meat, cheese, wine, restaurants, and Taylor Shellfish (1521 Melrose Ave., 501-4321). Much more than a store, it's a place for shellfish aficionados of all types to hang out, sip wine, slurp oysters, browse bivalves, crack crab, and gawk at geoduck. Freshly shucked oysters come out of the makeshift kitchen (a table and a few sinks) on rustic trays. Staff members add to the rusticity, filling the small room with loud calls of "a dozen Virginicas" or "two dozen Shigokus." All the seating is at tall cocktail tables and around wooden counters, and somehow it all fits. Even though it hugs the side of Capitol Hill, far from the saltwater-scented breezes of the waterfront, Taylor feels like a stroll on the beach and a shellfish picnic.

Save money at Shuckers' and Elliott's happy hours. Forget skipping oysters in months without an R: We're in Washington, where the water never warms up. Thus we've got the gift of year-round oyster happy hours. Most famously, Elliott's Oyster House (Pier 56, 1201 Alaskan Way, 623-4340) draws tourist crowds to its progressive oyster happy hour. Starting at 75 cents at 3 p.m., the cost per oyster rises each hour until 6 p.m. The views are pretty and the air is salty, authenticating the oyster experience.

For less experience and more oyster, however, true aficionados should get themselves to Shuckers (411 University St., 621-1984). It offers five fewer hours of happiness: 3–5 p.m. weekdays only, not easy to make if you work. But unlike Elliott's, with a single option, Shuckers puts its entire oyster menu on special at happy hour: nine or more salty selections, and a staff perfectly trained to know them all.

Frequent farmers markets for fish instead of fennel. The Northwest's local shellfish bounty might not be sprouting up next to your spring rhubarb, but it certainly isn't out of place at any of Seattle's weekly farmers markets. While farmers from the north, east, and south bring goods harvested from the soil, those from the west bear water-based fare. And with the near-year-round availability of clams, mussels, geoducks, oysters, and crabs, there's no shortage of options.

Strolling any market will present a cornucopia of local goods to go with your shellfish: a few leeks, some white wine, perhaps bacon to throw in with the mussels, with crusty bread to sop up the sauce. Find goods at Puget Beach Shellfish at the West Seattle Market (44th Avenue Southwest and Southwest Alaska Street, 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Sun. until July) and at the Hama Hama Oyster Company at the U District Market (University Way Northeast and Northeast 50th Street, 9 a.m.–2 p.m. Sat., year-round) and Ballard Market (Ballard Avenue Northwest and 22nd Avenue Northwest, 10 a.m.–3 p.m. Sun., year-round).

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