The Food and Wine Hedonist

leave your inhibitions at the door

My Mid-Life Crisis Love Affair: Raw Oysters

For most of my life, I hated raw oysters. Or so I thought. I think it was my experience with an “oyster shooter” in college, which apparently was not a fresh oyster. Never again, I said.

Yet people tend to do crazy things when they hit midlife: buy laughably inappropriate sports cars, get plastic surgery, or even trade in spouses for younger human trophies. And some of us just try things we’ve never tried before, or were quite convinced we hated. Like raw oysters.

Here’s how it happened. Last fall I was in San Francisco meeting coworkers at Waterbar, a gorgeous restaurant on the waterfront just below the Bay Bridge. A colleague had ordered appetizers for the table, including two beautiful plates of raw oysters. I ignored them—I’d eat the “Rockefeller” ones cooked with spinach and cheese, but I didn’t like raw oysters. One bad experience and why in the world would anyone ever again pick up a craggy shell filled with gray goo and slurp it down, sewer-pipe fish gunk and all? Only a masochist, right?

Well, I don’t know what got into me, but I did it. Using a tiny spoon I drizzled some of Waterbar’s citrus jalapeno mignonette on the gray goo, and then, down the hatch.

Oh wow. It was if I had just kissed the sea. Fresh, briny, sweet and salty, encapsulated in a tender orb. Every positive emotion I’ve ever had about the ocean captured in a single seawater bite. It wasn’t just tasty, it was an experience. I kept eating them, and we ordered more. Not fishy or stinky, and WAY fresher than any steamed mussel I’d ever eaten.

Of course, consider I was in a coastal city. I’m convinced Midwesterners who claim they don’t like seafood have never tasted really fresh seafood. A perfect example is salmon. I order salmon very selectively in Michigan as some is pure stank, but salmon I’ve had in San Francisco doesn’t even taste like the same fish.

So I came back to Michigan obsessed with oysters. I ordered them at a few Ann Arbor area restaurants. Some were pretty fresh and delicious; others, while not necessarily bad, I likely would not order again. They had been away from the sea long enough to have lost their magic. I also found that a really good mignonette adds to the experience.

The best ones—transporting me back to that day in San Francisco when I kissed the sea—were at the Sardine Room in Plymouth, an upscale bedroom community between Ann Arbor and Detroit. (Sardine Room is an incredibly good and fun restaurant, with lots of wonderful small plates like fried shishito peppers with olive oil and lemon, momofuku Brussels sprouts with bacon, sriracha, and lime, and of course, Portuguese sardines on crostini, plus delicious cocktails like The Cinder: “jalapeno infused el jimador, sombra mezcal, lime, angostura bitters, smoked salt rim.” Well worth the drive from Ann Arbor—trust me.)

Anyway, so where was my husband in all this? You guessed it, observing my raw oyster obsession from afar. “No thanks, no thanks, no thanks,” he’d say. He thought he hated raw oysters too. Until that night at the Sardine Room. Maybe it was the drinks, maybe the lighting, maybe the sexy music, but my middle-aged partner-in-crime decided to take a risk and gulp down a slimy gray thing. And you guessed it—he liked it. A lot.

So why should I be surprised, then, when he sends this photo in a text to me from a trip to Pike Place Market while in Seattle for a business meeting:



“The oyster vendor has a way to package them up so they travel well on the plane,” he told me when he got home, with a starry, faraway look in his eyes. “I considered it.”

The fact that my husband would even consider taking raw fish as carry on—you have to know him to understand—is beyond shocking. This is a guy who typically refuses to eat or even visit the restroom when he’s flying; he just wants to sit there listening to his iPod with his eyes closed until the whole human-travel-in-a-can thing is over. Yet look what those oysters had done to him. He considered traveling with raw ones on a plane! Crazy!

So what do you think of raw oysters? Good experiences, or bad ones? And would you give it another shot with a reputable purveyor?

You never know. You may find yourself asking, “Where have you been all my life?”

The Sicilian

The Sicilian





37 comments on “My Mid-Life Crisis Love Affair: Raw Oysters

  1. El Guapo
    March 24, 2014

    Love em!
    Some of the best seafood I’ve had has been at roadside shacks just off the water – fresh, handled properly, and by any description, delicious!

    The hard part is pushing past the one every so often that turns your insides to liquid and running out your…well, you know. But worth it even for the occasional bad one just to enjoy the great ones.

    • a2sicilian
      March 24, 2014

      Yeah, I did have a few at an upscale restaurant in Ann Arbor and was told they were very fresh, just flown in…they tasted fine, too. But the next day had a little upset. I’m wondering if just simply the rawness of it, every once in awhile that happens, freshness or not.

      • El Guapo
        March 24, 2014

        I worked in restaurants for a while.
        All seafood has rigorous requirements for holding it safely, especially lobster, mussels and oysters.
        It actually surprises me that the “bad one” doesn’t show up more often.

  2. elizabeth
    March 24, 2014

    I ADORE raw oysters, but I also live on the East Coast and can get to them fairly easily. We’ll even bring them home to shuck ourselves and cover with homemade horseradish relish from time to time, even though it cam make a mess and some of them can be really tricky to pry open. When we were in New Orleans last year, I ate so many Gulf oysters that I am convinced that I nearly turned into one. (They aren’t as nuanced as the kinds you can get up in the NE or along the west coast, but they are plentiful and tasty and cheap, so I had no complaints.)

    Now that you are (rightly) in love with them, you must try to get to New York and get some oysters at the Grand Central Oyster Bar, because there is a wonderful, inherent absurdity in slurping down raw oysters in the bowels of a train station. But they are really good, and the restaurant is one of those New York icons that lives up to its name and reputation.

    • a2sicilian
      March 24, 2014

      I will put that on my to-do list on my next visit to New York! Thanks for the suggestion. Oysters will forever be in my coastal city agendas. Re shucking; I considered buying some for our New Year’s Eve party last year, but chickened out at the last minute. They have them on ice at our local Whole Foods Market all the time. I just need to bite the bullet and give it a try.

  3. talkavino
    March 24, 2014

    Fresh oysters are wonderful – but yes, you need a trusted source – the consequences of a “bad oyster” are dire….

    Just as a matter of curiosity, I tried the fresh oysters for the first time when I was about 27, and it was the love at first sight …

    • a2sicilian
      March 24, 2014

      The first experience can make a big difference 🙂

  4. thefoodandwinehedonist
    March 24, 2014

    He should’ve schlepped them. I brought some home from Seattle a few times and they were fantastic – probably got to Midwest and eaten faster than the ones in restaurant. These things were monstrous.. Soooo good.

    • a2sicilian
      March 24, 2014

      I would’ve invited you over to shuck!

  5. the drunken cyclist
    March 24, 2014

    Wow, this story hits home on so many levels! First, I grew up in Plymouth (but do not know of the restaurant–I moved away years ago). Second, both my wife and I went through a mid-life crisis love affair with oysters of our own. Our epiphany came when we were having a Christmas Eve dinner with our friends who live in Paris. They just picked the oysters up and they came in from Normandy that day. It was a Parisian tradition to eat them on Christmas Eve (or so they told us), and without speaking a word both my wife and I started slurping away, and have not stopped since. The added bonus is that they pair so magically with champagne!

    • a2sicilian
      March 24, 2014

      That sounds like a lovely and magical Christmas Dinner. And you really do need to try Sardine Room. I think you’d be surprised. It seems far more suited to a cosmopolitan city than cute little Plymouth.

  6. ksbeth
    March 24, 2014

    like you, i only came to appreciate them quite recently. i was in nyc last summer and tried some at a wonderful sushi bar and loved them! i never thought it would happen )

    • a2sicilian
      March 25, 2014

      You learn something new every day. My brother tells me East Coast oysters are better than West Coast, so I usually try to get the East Coast ones.

  7. thewineraconteur
    March 24, 2014

    I am sorry to say that I am still in the Rockefeller mode, having trouble venturing back to the slurp. I may have to go back to The Sardine Room (the best of their three restaurants as far as I am concerned) and try them. I am only one city over from there.

    • a2sicilian
      March 25, 2014

      Put it this way…I found the raw oysters MUCH fresher than the rockefellers. Once they’re cooked, they’re fishier. Good oysters should not be fishy. At all. They are sweet and briny and taste of sea. The Sardine Room had a really good mignonette to dribble on them, too. The one at WaterBar was perfect with oysters; citrus, jalapeno, a little cilantro gave it an Asian flair. I hope you go to Sardine Room and give them a try!

  8. Denise
    March 25, 2014

    Eek! I love mussels but definitely draw the line at oysters. I think you might be right about freshness and being by the sea.

    • a2sicilian
      March 26, 2014

      have you tried them?

      • Denise
        March 26, 2014

        Once raw. It felt squidgy. Also Chinese people eat them deep fried in batter sometimes, and I remember having this as a child and finding it sour (although as a child I had very bad taste.)

  9. PinotNinja
    March 26, 2014

    Your description of a good raw oyster is spot on — it’s everything good and pure about the sea in a single bite.

    By far the best way to have them is shucking them yourselves while sitting at a picnic table at an oyster farm staring out at the water — both Hog Island Oysters just north of San Francisco and Taylor Shellfish north of Seattle are absolutely worth revolving a vacation around.

    The other weekend we had friends come down to visit us and they ordered oysters from their favorite farm and had them shipped to our house, which is on the opposite end of the east coast from the oyster farm, for a feast. They arrived packed in a cooler of ice and were absolutely perfect. Michigan can’t be any further away than my house is — so definitely look into what you can get shipped in from New England or even Virginia (which, surprisingly, has some great farms).

    • a2sicilian
      March 27, 2014

      Nice! I’ll have to do all those things. I may need to watch an instructional video on shucking…

      • the drunken cyclist
        April 3, 2014

        Shucking is rather easy after you overcome the idea that you are going to send the oyster knife screaming into the fleshy part of your palm…

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This entry was posted on March 24, 2014 by in Ann Arbor, Dining, Drinking, Travel and tagged , , , , , .
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