Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: The World Is My Charbroiled Oyster

It made sense to me that since I was going all the way to Drago's in "Metry" to pick up my tickets for Taste of the Town, I may as well have dinner there. Not having seen my Partner in Dine, Leah, in quite a while, it seemed the perfect opportunity to do so, and scratch an itch for some oysters, an itch I've had since I first experienced them a month ago.

In New Orleans, most fine dining establishments pride themselves on carrying P&J oysters, a particularly flavorful, juicy, and fresh type of oyster with a clean, delicate taste. My first forays into oysterdom were flanked by oysters of that distinction, since I am a wuss and distrustful of things I've never tried. The only time I'll experiment and eat anything new is when I know the quality is beyond reproach -- this way, at least, I know I gave the item in question a good chance. My theory is: if I'm not going to like it at a 4-star restaurant with a reputation for consistent excellence, I'm never going to like it at all. Realistically, I don't want to try something somewhere second-rate and have an inappropriate distaste for the food based on one bad experience.

It then follows that I would sample chargrilled oysters for the very first time at the place they were invented, the place where they were named by a national magazine as "New Orleans' Best Single Bite" (although exactly which publication escapes me as of this moment): Drago's. Of course, it helped my ballsiness that Tommy Cvitanovich, the BMOC at Drago's, put out a plate of them when I was interviewing him for the cover story for the Spring Restaurant Guide of Where Y'at magazine. I obviously then had to eat them or risk being extremely rude; if there's one thing a new-ish and young journalist should not be, it's extremely rude. I had a little trepidation -- these oysters are monstrously larger than your standard P&Js and I knew that the Cvitanoviches used their own local Croation fisherman rather than this well-known distributor, so I was unsure as to what to expect. With a tiny cocktail fork that could barely support the weight of these monstrous in-season behemoths, I dug in.

It was at that exact moment that I fell in love with oysters. Symbolically enough, it was Valentine's Day. Cupid had clearly struck again, and I was dazzled.

As a general rule, I'm usually pro-fried. Anything fried. I like fried shrimp, fried chicken, fried potatoes, fried vegetables, fried ... you get the point. So it was to my utter surprise, since I already LIKED fried oysters, that I adored the Drago's charbroiled oysters. And by adoration, I mean I ate all four on my plate, and came back with Boy and his friend Patryk in tow to eat some more later that night.

So what exactly is it about these squishy mollusks that I love so much?

Honestly, it's almost indescribable. The way Drago's does it is often imitated and varied, but no one even comes close. Cooked on a large open flame on the half shell, fire licking at the oysters and charring the shells, the cloud of smoke that then arises coats the entire thing with a heady charcoal-y flavor that penetrates the surface membrane and is sealed in the core. A perfect mix of salt, garlic, herbs, and butter adds an immensely and immediately satisfying flavor balance to the natural sweetness of the oysters, since the smoky element is tasted in the back of your mouth after the initial hit of seasoning. Since the oysters are cooked in their own juices, they remain moist and retain their own fresh and distinctive characteristics while also absorbing the characteristics of the other ingredients I've already mentioned. To give the surface of the gleaming oysters a nice, charred crisp, parmesan and another type of cheese is sprinkled generously on breadcrumbs for even more deep-seated richness.

My mom was extremely surprised when I called to tell her I ate oysters and enjoyed them. For so long, I'd harbored a disgust for mollusks -- all things in double-hinged shells. I hadn't eaten a whole clam since I was about ten; the last time I ate a mussel was when I was around seven; an allergic reaction to abalone at three meant that I'd never try it again; and I'd never had a scallop until 2008's vintner's dinner at Zoe for NOWFE. But I had these Drago's oysters and my world was turned around.

"But they're so FAT, with bulging, squishy bellies!" she protested.

"Yes, Mom -- and they were delicious," was my response.

This narrative may seem kind of confusing to anyone that's followed my work, since I even dedicated an entire post to how much I couldn't stomach eating things that squished. But that type of squish in the smoked salmon sushi was a totally different kind of squish. That was cold, soft, and squishy was basically its main characteristic. On the other hand, the Drago charbroiled oyster's main characteristic was unadulterated, climactic FLAVOR, with squish being a secondary characteristic. And the way it squished was pleasant. There was the satisfying feel of your teeth puncturing the soft shape of the oyster, and a flood of juices to hit every taste bud in your mouth. It wasn't a soggy, nondescript, flat squish like the smoked salmon, but rather a melting of the oyster as it merged with your mouth and fell apart in a cataclysmic burst of flavor and steam that forces a moan of pleasure out of your mouth as you try to let some of the heat escape.

I finally understood why oysters were considered aphrodisiacs. There was nothing G-rated about eating a charbroiled oyster. Every sensation was sensual; every bite brought uncensored pleasure to every corner of your mouth and every corner of your brain.

And the big chunk of Leidenheimer French bread? Well, I love bread, but after a plate of these plump, luxurious oysters, it was reduced to just a tool for cleaning up the resultant mess, the pools of butter and oyster water that graced the plate.

Frickin' fabulous and nothing less. Although I don't smoke, someone should pass me a cigarette ... I'm fully sated.
Drago's Seafood Restaurant
3232 N Arnoult Road
Metairie, LA 70002
(504) 888-9254

Hilton New Orleans Riverside
2 Poydras Street
New Orleans, LA 70140
(504) 584-3911

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