For the past 20 years, Kumamotos have ruled the shellfish platter. They are the BeyoncĂ©s of the oyster world, a one word-named powerhouse mollusk that is simultaneously smooth, rich, and crowd-pleasing.
They came to prominence in the 1990s on the U.S. West Coast (having arrived from Japan in the 1940s, to little acclaim). Despite their higher price point, they continue to be a bestseller at the Lobster Place â€” one of New Yorkâ€™s top seafood purveyors â€” and its Cull & Pistol oyster bar.
But Lobster Place owner Ian MacGregor and Davis Herron, its director of retail and restaurant, have seen increased interest in newer names.
â€śFolks are expanding their horizons as they look to try as many different oysters from as many different locations as possible. Weâ€™re seeing a 25-per-cent year-over-year growth in multi-variety platters,â€ť Herron said. A major reason is increased supply: For some time, the North Fork has been ramping up oyster production. â€śNow weâ€™re seeing a definitive increase in the supply of Maine oysters. Nonesuch is a good example. Consumers are interested in tasting from regions that might have been, historically, more difficult to come by.â€ť
Another bivalve expert, chef Kerry Heffernan â€” whose seafood empire includes the seasonal Grand Banks oyster bar in Tribeca, Island Oyster on Governors Island, and Seaworthy in New Orleans â€” is also seeing an increase in such southern oysters as Black Duck Salts from Virginia. â€śModern aquaculture techniques are now providing us with oysters that are much different from what you typically expect,â€ť he said.
Oyster consumption is on the rise. MacGregor estimated that he sells about 3 million oysters a year, a 25-per-cent increase from five years ago. For one thing, they are one of the few good news stories in a world of environmental alarm bells. On the East Coast, ventures such as the Billion Oyster Project (in which Lobster Place is a partner) are helping to clean up and invigorate waterways. That and oystersâ€™ low-calorie, high-protein, happy-hour associations have contributed to making them a menu necessity.
We asked Heffernan, MacGregor, Herron, and chef Joshua Skenes (of Saison and the soon-to-open Angler oyster and seafood bar in San Francisco) what six names to look for on raw bar menus this summer.
Peconic Gold (Long Island, N.Y.)
These oysters are attention-getting for their shells, which have deep cups and a reddish-gold hue thanks to the minerals in Peconic Bay.
â€śTheyâ€™re what youâ€™d call a New York oyster thatâ€™s benefiting from the modern aquaculture techniques,â€ť Herron said.
Flavour: Creamy, with medium salinity and a sweet-and-smoky finish.
Oysterponds (Orient Bay, N.Y.)
This is an oyster with a notable address, farmed in a tidal pool on Long Islandâ€™s North Fork, near Shelter Island. It grows fast: The best are at least four inches when harvested. Herron notes that theyâ€™re one of the bestsellers at Cull & Pistol.
Flavour: Notable salinity-they taste like the ocean-with a clean, crisp finish.
Nonesuch (Scarborough River, Maine)
From an eight-year-old, boutique oyster farm in a nature conservancy south of Portland, these bivalves are finished â€śfree rangeâ€ť on the bottom of the river. One variety has deep, green shells that have earned them the name Nonesuch Emeralds; theyâ€™re also a Cull & Pistol bestseller.
Flavour: High salinity, with a meaty texture and a sweet, seagrass taste.
Black Duck Salts (Hog Island Bay, Va.)
â€śOysters from south of New Jersey were typically considered less worthy. We considered them flabby because the water is warmer and the salinity isnâ€™t so high,â€ť said Heffernan, who labels himself a New England oyster snob. Even he is impressed with the Black Duck Salts, now in waters with higher salinity and more interesting algae to feed on.
Flavour: Delicate minerality and high salinity, with sweet, crisp body and a grassy finish.
Shigokus (Samish Bay, Wash.)
From the esteemed Taylor Shellfish Farms (incidentally, one of the countyâ€™s top purveyors of Kumamotos; itâ€™s been in the sustainable-shellfish business since the 1890s), these oysters are shaken in crates, so the shells are deeper and thicker. Theyâ€™re a favourite of Skenes, who likes the briny flavour and plump size; youâ€™ll be able to find them at his upcoming Angler.
Flavour: Not too salty, with a subtle, clean, and lightly fruity flavour.
Kusshi (Baynes Sound, B.C.)
The name translates as â€śultimateâ€ť in Japanese. Though these are sometimes compared to Kumamotos because theyâ€™re small, jewel-like and creamy, theyâ€™re a little brinier than the former, thanks to the rich waters in which theyâ€™re grown around Vancouver Island. They, too, are tumbled to produce a deeper cup.
Flavour: â€śThey have that balanced, intense minerality often present in West Coast oysters but with some butter and brine, and that is so much more pleasant,â€ť Heffernan said.