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Pearls for Oysters: A Raw-Bar Roundup

December 6, 2013
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by Ruth Tobias

“All shellfish have to be sold with a tag indicating who harvested it and when. It’s really one of the most traceable products on the market," says Seattle Fish Co. COO Derek Figueroa, who led a fascinating educational oyster tasting earlier this week at Angelo’s Taverna. “When it comes to provenance, they’ve led the way. There are really only five species; the differences, and the names, come from the areas where they’re grown, as with wine and its terroir.” That much was clear as we sampled itty-bitty yet distinctly mushroom-flavored Olympias from South Puget Sound; creamy, almost chowder-like Naked Cowboys from Long Island; olive-tinged Nova Scotia Tatamagouches and more.

Ironically, even as their popularity soars, oysters are being threatened by ocean acidification. Since 1988, laments Figueroa, “There’s been a downward trend. We’re expending more effort to get less.”

Of course, distributors like Seattle Fish - launched way back in 1918 by the grandfather of president James Iacino, who notes that “there used to be oyster houses all over the city” - are, along with farmers nationwide, deeply committed to sustainability initiatives. So in supporting the restaurants that source carefully, you’re doing your own part to ensure the little guys continue to make the transition from miniscule spat (i.e. larvae) to your belly.

Angelo’s Taverna

From the stained-glass windows to the paint-flecked exposed brick, the shelves lined with jars of limoncello to the four mounted flat-screens, this neighborhood staple looks like the family pizzeria it was for nearly 40 years. And yet, under the auspices of new owners Eric Hyatt and Craig Jones, who remodeled and reopened it in August, it’s not really the same at all. Sure, red sauce continues to splash the whole menu: “We realize how much this place meant to so many people,” explains Hyatt. But it’s complemented by the oyster bar that “we were excited about from the get-go.”

Raw varieties on the half-shell aren’t, well, the half of it: the specialties of the house are chargrilled platters and shooters. Regarding the former, we’ve been digging the Breckenridge bourbon-butter version (pictured with garlic bread) for awhile now - but at the Seattle Fish tasting, we received proof that pairing shellfish with cheese is not the crime some Italophiles make it out to be, thanks to oysters richly smothered in Gorgonzola, bacon and arugula pesto. Hyatt’s crew also offers a weekly concoction such as the crab cake-inspired lump crab-and-garlic butter with roasted red-pepper sauce. As for the selection of six shooters, we’re partial to the Chach with Downslope pepper vodka, cucumber, mint, lime and chile syrup.  

620 E. 6th Ave.; 303-744-3366

The Kitchen Denver

At its sprawling, sparkling LoDo outpost, The Kitchen - a forerunner in Boulder’s farm-to-table movement - shells out bivalves, crustaceans and caviar, oh my, in grand fashion. To supplement chilled, smoked mussels, crab legs, littleneck clams and of course, a selection of about six oysters, the fall menu also showcases potted salmon, pickled sardines and more. And - as the original location has done since it opened in 2004 - this branch always makes room for the shellfish of renowned Deer Isle, Maine, diver Ingrid Bengis, whether lobster or scallops.

1530 16th St.; 303-623-3127

Sushi Sasa

The featured West Coast oysters at Wayne Conwell’s contemporary Japanese stunner change from week to week; right now, for instance, you’ll get Hood Canals from Washington. What doesn’t change is the availability of one of the most sumptuous oyster dishes in the city: six sautéed beauties topped with cubes of foie gras and sunny-side-up quail eggs, finished with a drizzle of white-truffle oil and balsamic vinegar. An array of specialty sashimi also shines, be it striped-bass escabeche in grapeseed-oil vinaigrette with fresh wasabi and shaved, house-dried miso or the luscious ankimo (monkfish liver) with yet more foie gras and quail egg, plus homemade brioche, sturgeon roe and miso dressing. Opt for omakase and you’re likely to score at least one of the above.

2401 15th St., #80; 303-433-7272

Black Pearl

Somehow, no visit to this Old South Pearl fixture seems complete without a round of oysters to kick it off. Sidle up to its three-sided bar and let the shucking commence: there’s always one variety from each coast - say, Virginia Barcats and Washington Calm Coves - served with its own condiment, from pink peppercorn-tarragon mignonette to pomegranate granita. But there’s also a house classic of ancho-chile fried oysters, accompanied by saffron aïoli, that never fails to put a spring in our step (or a zing in our mouths). 

1529 S. Pearl St.; 303-777-0500

Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar

The granddaddy of all indie Denver seafooders (the Boulder flagship opened in 1994), Jax remains as fresh and fun as it was on day one. All four locations share the vibe of the urban waterfront, at once glittering and subtly gritty - and all, of course, serve up boatloads of shellfish and such with pizzazz. Raw oysters on the half-shell are a given, but may also come Buffalo-fried, blackened or baked à la Rockefeller; peel-and-eat shrimp constitute another staple, as do caviar and domestic roes, with all the traditional accompaniments.

Of course there are chilled samplers and seasonal snacks like Thai-style steamed mussels or hamachi crudo. Currently, executive chef Sheila Lucero is bringing whole live Dungeness crab from California into the Boulder and Glendale branches. And do we even need to note that happy-hour specials abound?

1539 17th St.; 303-292-5767
928 Pearl St., Boulder; 303-444-1811
650 S. Colorado Blvd., Glendale; 303-756-6449
123 N. College Ave., Fort Collins; 970-682-2275

LOLA

Like Jax, its sibling under the Big Red F umbrella, this LoHi pioneer of coastal Mexican cuisine puts out a stellar seafood spread. In addition to oysters (at least four from either coast at any given time), chef-partner Jamey Fader and crew offer a few seasonal ceviches - think  sea bass with potato, Marcona almonds, fried capers and baked lemon, or shrimp with melon and jalapeño aïoli. Three or four other raw or cured tidbits emerge from the cold bar as well: here a tequila-cured salmon with whipped goat cheese and corn cakes, there an ahi-tuna poke (which may contain papaya and serrano chiles one day, pomegranate and smoky adobo the next).

1575 Boulder St.; 720-570-8686

Le Grand Bistro & Oyster Bar

Amid the embossed tin and antique tile in which Robert Thompson’s ode to Paris is writ large, the seafood bar gleams bright. Four types of oysters rotate throughout the week, including British Columbian Chef Creeks and Treasure Coves from Washington’s South Puget Sound, accompanied by housemade cocktail sauce and champagne mignonette. Chef John Broening’s kitchen also delivers the likes of seared baby octopus with black-olive tapenade and bay-scallop ceviche with aji amarillo, cumin and cilantro. You can sample them all, plus shrimp cocktail, via the fruits de mer platter.

1512 Curtis St.; 303-534-1155

Humboldt

This splashy Uptowner set out to specialize in seafood, and the proof is in the oysters. Five or six varieties await on ice daily, perhaps Wiannos from Cape Cod or Kumamotos from the aptly named Humboldt Bay in California; they also come broiled with crumbs in tarragon-lemon butter, fried with sweet-pepper relish and aïoli, and baked with Mornay sauce and spinach. (That’s in addition to classics like clam chowder, shrimp cocktail and steamed mussels, naturally.)

1700 Humboldt St.; 303-813-1700

TAG Raw Bar

It’s been quite a whirlwind autumn for Troy Guard, with two openings, Los Chingones and Sugarmill, just this week. But amid all the fuss, we think his subterranean small-plates joint in Larimer Square tends to get forgotten. Three or four types of oysters, accompanied by ponzu and pico de gallo, are typically on offer: Shigokus from Washington and Piper's Point from Prince Edward Island, for instance. The fish on the raw taco with jicama slaw and guajillo-chile sauce may be kampachi one day, hamachi the next. And the ceviche shot rotates as well, from Skuna Bay salmon with lemon agave, cherry tomato and mustard seed to ahi tuna with mango, crispy lotus, poblano and cilantro.

1423 Larimer St.; 303-996-2685

Highland Pacific

Soft lights, local artwork, cool cats jamming on the regular: Ed Kammerer’s low-key LoHi longtimer has lured loyalists for eight years, and it’s still a blast to be among them, slurping down steamed crab legs and mussels, peel-and-eat shrimp or anywhere from four to six types of oysters. Weeknight deals on shellfish sweeten the pot, as do a handful of Gulf Coast classics like crawfish étouffée and hush puppies. 

3934 W. 32nd Ave.; 303-477-6644

And we’re still just scratching the surface here. As we noted in our lineup of 7 Winning Wine Lists, Trillium does a bang-up job with smoked, pickled and other morsels from the sea. Ship Tavern - the schooner-themed pub at the historic Brown Palace (pictured) - remains as cozy as ever a place to down some raw or Rockefeller-style oysters, and the bar at Sushi Den sees the non-stop action it has for nearly 30 years. You can go glam at downtown franchises like Oceanaire or Ocean Prime - and come next summer, Jen Jasinski and Beth Gruitch will expand their mini-empire with S&G Fish at Union Station. Climate change notwithstanding, everything’s coming up shellfish.

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