Gooey, Gray, Slimy, Briny, but Savory Oysters are Eaten Alive in Downtown Cleveland
Oysters haven’t gotten any prettier, but they are getting more popular.
Lately oysters have been coming in from the East and West Coasts to a downtown Cleveland grocery store. And as WKSU’s Vivian Goodman discovers in today’s Quick Bite, adventurous eaters are swallowing the briny little bivalves by the dozen.
In recent years there’s been a surge of interest in oysters. They’re now appearing on almost one out of 10 menus nationwide, a nearly 16 percent increase since 2010.
But there’s still a lot of resistance. Just ask Jennifer Stahorsky and her friend Michele Koerper of Brunswick.
“I just have never ordered one,” Stahorsky admits. “The consistency and the look of them are kind of off-putting,” adds Koerper. “It just doesn’t look like it would taste good.”
But these women are about to learn that looks can be deceiving.
They didn’t come for the oysters
They’re at Heinen’s grocery store in downtown Cleveland. They didn’t drive here all the way from Brunswick for oysters. “No, we came actually for the wine bar,” Koerper laughs.
They’re in good company at the new downtown Heinen’s. One of the deans of Cleveland’s cuisine scene, chef Parker Bosley is also a regular.
“The wine bar upstairs is just phenomenal,” says Bosley, “and people come here on Friday, Saturday night just to hang out.”
But for him the main attraction is the oyster bar. “I could eat oysters forever, no problem. I love oysters.”
Need to be coaxed
Heinen’s Seafood Manager Sonya Taylor understands not everyone feels that way.
“We do have people that have never tried it, so we try to coax them into trying it.”
Store employee Cathy Klemencic is in charge of the coaxing, and the oyster bartender has just scored a victory.
Good sportsStahorsky and Koerper now say they’re willing to try one.
“Oh, sure!” they exclaim in tandem.
The correct technique
FirstKlemencic demonstrates her shucking skills. She wears special gloves for protection from a very sharp knife.
“You are going right into the hinged area,” she says. “There’s like a little sweet spot. You get the little tip of the knife in there. It’s turning a key almost or like popping the lid on the hood of a car or something. You feel that, and then slowly around the edges you get it loosened, and then carefully you separate the muscle on the top as well as on the bottom.”
Next, with both Chef Bosley and Cathy Klemencic’s encouragement, the newbies get expert guidance in the proper way to consume an oyster.
“You’re not allergic to shellfish. That’s important to clarify,” Klemencic begins. “What I always say to someone who's having one for the first time is that it’s probably a good idea to get a ... small to medium size. You’re going to just swallow it. You consume it almost like you would a jello shot only it’s going to be savory. You seem experienced. I said jello shot and someone perked right up.”
Taking the plunge
Stahorsky and Koerper laugh, but somewhat nervously. As to Klemencic’s point about just swallowing, the chef begs to disagree.
“Do one bite! You should put your teeth together once just to kind of go through it,” he advises, “and that lets the flavor kind of explode in your mouth. And then you swallow it.”
“So there is where you’re going to hold it, that little pinch,” Klemencic instructs, pointing to the narrower end of the half shell.
Eating oysters can get messy. Klemencic doesn’t want patrons ruining their clothes.
“Keep your head back! Enjoy it! Get all the liquid!” she urges. “They call that liquid ‘liqueur.’ I guess because it’s so good.”
There’s a moment of hesitation. The two women look quickly at each other, then close their eyes and get ready to gulp.
“Keep your head back until you’re finished swallowing it!” Klemencic cautions. “You can bite into it, but you don’t really want to chew it.”
“Oh that was good!” says a surprised Stahorsky.
“You did great,” says her oyster bartender.
“Oh, it was really good!” Koerper agrees.
“You coasted right through it,” says Parker Bosley with an approving grin.
Oysters can intimidate
Chef Bosley understood the oyster rookies’ initial reluctance. He still remembers his first time.
He was working as a chef in France in the ‘60s when friends invited him to join them for oysters at the elegant Hotel Raspail in Paris.
“I was very young,” he says. “I was still that farm boy from Ohio, and I thought, 'Raw oysters, I don’t know about this.' But then I thought, 'I don’t want to disappoint.' So I said, ‘OK, that’ll be great. I’ll have oysters.’ So I just started to do it, and I thought this is wonderful. And ever since I’ve loved oysters.”
All shapes and sizes
Cathy Klemencic serves a wide variety of oysters at Heinen’s. They differ in size and saltiness. Some have a clear liqueur while others are creamy.
“Most people just enjoy them like a wine tasting,” she says. “They do an oyster tasting.”
She often gets connoisseurs looking for particular varieties, "oftentimes because they lived in that part of the country. So we’ve had a lot of people who have said they’ve been in Massachusetts when we’ve had the Wellfleet. That’s a popular one.”
They also bring in Mayflowers and Knotty Pilgrims from Massachusetts, East Points from Delaware, and Wildcat oysters from the west coast.
“If you look at the shells you can tell they’re definitely fluted. They have a different appearance to them. Behind them from Canada, but it is the East Coast, are the little Pink Moons, very similar in the saltiness. I think people have a preference more of size. A lot of times, too, it’s easier maybe to swallow the smaller ones."
“Those little ones are just wonderful,” reports Chef Bosley.
He asks Klemencic to open a dozen more for him and devours them with evident glee.
Bosley says he prefers the grocery store oyster bar to ordering raw oysters at a restaurant because they’re more than fresh. He can tell as soon as they are shucked that the animals are actually alive.
“You want to be able if you hold up the shell and kind of push away at the edges sort of push them inward, they should kind of come back out to the edge. That means that it’s probably, to put it bluntly, still has a little life in it.”
Oysters help keep our oceans alive, too. Oyster reefs provide shelter for crabs and fish, and the average adult oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water in a day.
Special sauce or not
Purists may prefer to swallow raw oysters plain, but sauces are available at most oyster bars.
“We make a homemade mignonette sauce,” says Heinen’s Klemencic, “which is red wine vinegar with cracked black pepper and some minced scallions."
You can also choose horseradish, tabasco or cocktail sauce, but Parker Bosley prefers the mignonette.
“That is the classic sauce. Another is fresh ground pepper with lemon squeezed over it. That’s about it. ... That’s all you need.”
We tell him we hear that in California they sometimes add barbecue sauce and lay the oyster on coals.
“That,” says the chef, “would be a sin.”