I ate the biggest oyster of my life last week. I’m not kidding – this beast was gargantuan, a real two-biter. Had I tried to slurp it back as one usually does with an oyster I genuinely think I may have choked, slowly suffocating on an oversized mollusc (which I suppose, all things considered, isn’t a terrible way to go).
While considering how the hell to tackle said oyster (which, by the way, was a Poole Harbour rock oyster at Townsend restaurant in Whitechapel) I got thinking about how almost every restaurant in the city is serving them up these days. Earlier that same day – yes, it was a fairly indulgent 12 hours – I was presented with an oyster tasting menu of sorts at Seabird, a restaurant that just so happens to boast the city’s longest oyster menu. Taking me on a tour of the Celtic Sea, the plate featured Irish, English and French oysters from Carlingford, Lindisfarne and Brittany respectively. They varied so much in texture and salinity that it was like a journey in oceanic terroir, an entire conversation on water quality, marine life and minerality in one bite.
So, where would one go for the city’s best oyster? You could argue you’ll find it at Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill (the clue is, of course, in the name) where you might find them natural and nestled in amongst a mane of seaweed on a bed of ice – or you could order them battered and fried and served with chorizo, or perhaps you’re after a hit of spice courtesy of a sambal-dressed oyster topped with crispy shallots.
Maybe you’re a fan of Kudu Grill’s oysters, which come with tomato dashi and bulbous pearls of trout roe. They’re the perfect predecessor to the restaurant’s braai-focused menu, setting the tone with a hit of flavour before you go on to feast on dishes like blackened flatbread topped with wild garlic pesto and glistening folds of silky lardo, or fat, juicy grilled prawns swaddled in a pool of punchy peri peri butter.
Ombra tends to serve theirs with a seasonal vegetable-oriented topping. On a previous visit in winter that manifested itself as a beetroot reduction, but a recent meal to celebrate the restaurant’s ten-year anniversary (plus one – the original celebration had to be delayed a year thanks to Covid) saw them topped with a cucumber granita. It’s a segue from the approach most restaurants take that tends to focus on acidity, be it lemon juice or vinaigrette, but no less satisfying, the mellow flavour of the cucumber complementing rather than overpowering the bivalve.
At Brat restaurant, much like everything else on the menu, the oysters are given something of a conflagrant lick courtesy of the enormous open-fire cooking station that imbues pretty much every dish (yes, including the cheesecake on the dessert menu) with a healthy dose of Basque-influenced smoke. Roasted in the shell and topped with seaweed and tomato, the finished product has a concentrated salinity, with an undercurrent of earthiness courtesy of the grill – it’s like the meeting point between ocean and land.
In the third course of eight at Behind, the Michelin-starred restaurant nestled (you guessed it) just behind London Fields, you get not one but two oysters. Served on the same plate, the first is left in the shell, fresh and dressed with cucumber oil and horseradish, which, rather than whacking you round the face with an eye-watering punchiness, instead offers a subtle hint of depth. The second is poached, wrapped in an oyster leaf and topped with gentleman’s relish. The resulting mouthful is a powerhouse of flavour; tangy, acidic and briney, balanced by a whisper of sweetness.
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While perhaps an incredible vessel for various flavours, my favourite way to eat oysters is at their most simple: natural, with a squeeze of lemon, a spoonful of shallot vinaigrette and, every now and again, a tiny drop of Tabasco. I understand the tendency for not liking oysters. They’re a divisive thing – slightly snotty in texture, unique in taste and often fussy to consume (my top half has ended up doused in a messy salt water/vinaigrette combination more times than I like to admit). They’re also a dangerous thing to eat, occasionally being the culprit for violent bouts of food poisoning. This is often simply down to bad luck. Oysters thrive in murky waters and act as a natural filtration system – essentially meaning they suck up all the shit in the water, sometimes quite literally – so it's unsurprising that sometimes that shit will have an unfriendly interaction with our stomachs.
Not to be too trad, but I do think Anthony Bourdain put it best when he said of oysters: “Good food and good eating are about risk. Every once in a while an oyster, for instance, will make you sick to your stomach. Does this mean you should stop eating oysters? No way.” I am yet to be felled by one of the slimy buggers, and knowing my luck it’ll happen not long after I write this in some kind of karmic reset. But when there are so many of them being trotted out on menus across the capital, there’s no chance my consumption will be slowing down anytime soon. Life is hard, living is becoming increasingly more expensive, and everyday luxuries are being sacrificed for basic necessities, but finding the time to sit down for even just one or two oysters with a crisp glass of something white or maybe sparkling is hard to beat. And now, more than ever really, you’re spoilt for choice.