Cold Anchor Steam beer and oysters on the half shell: I always considered this a perfect union for summertime. But it didn’t sit well with some oyster aficionados, devout eaters who developed stringent rules, such as avoiding months without the letter “r.” And while there is some truth to arguments levied against summertime oyster indulgence, many of those myths have been debunked, and restaurants have found new solutions for sourcing the best ones possible. In light of this, I turned to Executive Chef Spencer Bezaire of L&E Oyster Bar in Silver Lake, consistently considered one of the best places to slurp down a dozen (or more) bivalves in Los Angeles. He cleared the air as we talked shop about eating habits, flavor profiles, and oyster farms.
JUSTIN: Is there a general flavor-scale that can be applied to summertime oysters?
SPENCER: Warmer weather influences selection, harvest location, and flavor profiles. As the water temperatures rise, oysters begin to spawn. This spawning process is laborious, and the oysters lose their fat, or sweetness, to a degree. Now there are triploid oysters that are asexual and do not spawn. These are good choices, however, they’re not my favorite. The flavors tend to be a bit more salty, and give you a less firm meat texture. However, summertime here means wintertime in New Zealand, which is now farming some amazing oysters. Prince Edward Island this time of year stays a bit cooler and can harvest through most of the summer. Summer is a difficult season to navigate, but with careful selection and vigilance we can get great oysters all year round.
What was the last oyster you tried that really blew you away?
I have to say that the flats coming out of the Damariscotta River in Maine always blow me away. Superminerally, bright, and crunchy. Also, Island Creeks are always a great bet, salt bombs with a bit of sweetness. A local one that has also become a favorite of mine are the Pacific Golds out of Morro Bay. Nice balance of salt, kelp umami, and cucumber. The Blue Pools out of Hama Hama might be the biggest crowd-pleaser.
Set the record straight: What is the main difference between East Coast and West Coast oysters?
Ah, the battle, Tupac and Biggie. West Coast tend to have more fat content and sweetness, while East Coast oysters tend to be on the more salty side and are more complex. I feel that I can taste location or “meroir” a whole lot easier with East Coast oysters. That is not to say that Pacific oysters don’t have flavor variances; it’s just a bit more subtle than the East Coast.
What’s a good entry-level oyster for someone to try? And what are some more complex ones that you would recommend to the veteran bivalve eater?
Beginners should try Kusshi, Shibumi, or Spring Creeks. These are smaller and “easier” for the newbie. Great oysters with depth, but easy nonetheless. The easy choice would be Kumamoto, but I am not a fan, and I don’t feel like it opens up the door as much, as far as flavor, or the possibilities of what oysters can taste like. Veterans might want to try Maine flats, Olympias, Olde Salts, Plymouth Rocks, or Naked Cow Girls. These all have their own flavor and can range from that copper taste of blood in your mouth to chicken stock to mushrooms. These might sound like weird flavors to have in an oyster, but they’re actually there!
Have you ever visited an oyster farm?
I went to Morro Bay Oyster Company’s farm awhile back. Neal Maloney is the man! Backbreaking work, pride, passion: It’s all there, and all oyster farmers I meet or talk with are the same way. With such a volatile and unpredictable product, you’ve got to be sick in the head, or love it more than anything, to want to pursue it. I tip my hat to these guys, as I’m reminded every day when I see a bag of oysters arrive at L&E from New Zealand, Massachusetts, or Washington. It blows me away. And, to top it off, we get them 18 to 24 hours out of the water!
Photo of Spencer Bezaire courtesy of Spencer Bezaire