There are some foods with which it is disastrous to mess. No chef, however resourceful, has ever done anything better with a gull’s egg than to soft-boil it and serve it with celery salt. Steamed asparagus needs only a languid trawl through a bath of hollandaise (for some purists, even that is a step too far, and melted butter will suffice). Fresh ceps need but a brief encounter with a hot, oiled frying pan, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper.
Oysters, however, are the victims of more gratuitous cheffiness than any other food. These little bivalves have suffered the indignities of poaching, grilling, frying, even stuffing, when all they really want – to paraphrase Greta Garbo – is to be left alone. Rock oysters can take a squeeze of lemon and perhaps a drop of tabasco, and native oysters need only a chilly glass of chablis to be at their briny best.
For sheer variety, it’s hard to beat New York – specifically, the Grand Central Oyster Bar, where 25 or so kinds of oyster are always available. Or the Aquagrill bar, on the corner of Spring Street and 6th, which boasts, according to a cartoon on the wall, “the freshest, plumpest oysters in the whole wide world”. I would not disagree; try the kumamotos with their fluted shells and neither will you.
The US is fortunate in having oyster-bearing coasts on both the Pacific and the Atlantic: at Aquagrill, the best from each shore are gathered on one long menu, and the wine list is a joy. It’s one of the most civilised spots in New York.
Oysters, being raw and estuarine, are notoriously susceptible to picking up viruses and transmitting them to us, which is why that overused word “provenance” is vital in this case. This side of the Atlantic, I have a friend who eats oysters “defensively”, by which he means that he sticks to places with a sizeable turnover of the frisky little molluscs. Otherwise, he avoids them.
He is happiest either at Bentley’s, Richard Corrigan’s splendidly rejuvenated old warhorse on the aptly named Swallow Street, or at the Wright Brothers restaurants in London’s Borough Market and Kingly Street, Soho. Co-founder Robin Hancock cultivates and harvests oysters on the Helford River, in Cornwall, so provenance is hardly an issue. He also supplies many of London’s top restaurants. Bag a couple of barstools at the Borough outpost, order a dozen oysters – the Duchy natives, if they have them, or the excellent native oysters from Loch Ryan – and a bottle of Denis Race’s deliciously flinty chablis. At Wright Brothers, happiness is served on the half-shell.