Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Joys of Seattle and Oysters

There is nothing like a Seattle summer. It's the best-kept secret about the Emerald City, if you ask me. Spring creeps up after winter slowly, teasing the soggy soil, the seagulls and those who frequent the city's lush outdoor markets with spots of sunshine and temperatures that could almost be considered warm. But summer arrives suddenly, brazenly, warming every corner of the un-air-conditioned city until it screams for mercy and drives all of its residents to lakes and beaches. There, skin is exposed, sun-starved and marbleized with tattoos, more often than not.

The other well-kept secret about Seattle is the food. It's really good. With the Puget Sound to the west, Alaska farther north and rich farmland only a zip-code away in any direction, Seattle's local markets are abundant with fresh ingredients for truly remarkable meals. I have been spoiled by River Valley Ranch and Port Madison Farm's chevres, Skagit River Ranch's organic beef and eggs, Partners Crackers and other local foods but, most of all, Bill's oysters from Taylor Shellfish Farms.

It wasn't summer when I first encountered one of Bill's oysters. It was February, cold and dreary. My mom had come to visit for the weekend and she joined me for my usual Saturday outing to the University Farmers' Market. We met up with my good friend Ashley and collected the makings of a hearty dinner. After two loops around the grounds, we ended up in front of Bill's stand, stacked with different varieties of oysters, clams, mussels, geoducks and lots of ice. I had never been tempted by raw oysters, perhaps because of the foreign texture or perhaps due to a childhood memory of my mom wielding a sharp knife against a closed oyster and, inadvertently, her left hand in a shucking mishap. This didn't stop her from making a beeline to Bill at Ashley's suggestion. Before I knew it, I had Ashley, Mom and Bill all coaching me on how to slurp down my very first oyster.

I was very brave, my dear friends. Oyster Bill picked out the smallest of them all, a tiny, perfectly-shaped Kumamoto, and taught us how to properly (and safely) shuck it. He told us that oysters are at their peak in February and these were especially sweet and flavorful ("because they're having sex this time of year!" he hissed with a grin). He recommended that I chew it thoroughly to get the most flavor. With that, I lifted the half-shell to my lips and slurped up the meat and juice, chewing just enough.

That little Kumamoto was salty and sweet, with such a distinct flavor and texture. It was like swallowing all of the good things about the ocean--the cool breeze, the salt and the misty air. I never needed to "acquire" a taste; it was born in me that day.

We left the market with a dozen Virginica and Kumamoto oysters and a proper shucking knife and, that night, we feasted on our winnings with a bottle of champagne to celebrate.

Oysters may be at their peak during the cold and grey winter months, but I find myself craving them in the summer as a way to cut through a suffocatingly hot day. A few weeks ago, summer had pounced upon Seattle, startling the early-June snowfall into submission. I was up from Long Beach for the weekend to visit my friends, and Ashley, Peter (her fiancé ) and I wandered down to a corner restaurant for dinner.

I had been looking forward to my arrival in Seattle for weeks, and I wanted nothing more than to eat oysters with Ashley again. We were in luck when we strolled into The Harvest Vine in Madison Park, although these Virginica oysters were lavish, served in tall shot-glasses adorned with layers of strawberry, cucumber, fennel ice and topped with cracked pepper.

It was a far cry from slurping down a tiny, unpretentious Kumamoto, snatched from a bucket of ice and shucked in a parking lot. To be honest, I prefer my oysters sans embellishment. I don't even like covering up the flavor with lemon, but I consented in the spirit of things and I'm sure glad that I did.

It was quite a mouthful and took at least two good swallows to get the stuff down, but the combination of contrasting flavors and textures was tremendous. The Virginica was salty next to the sweet slices of strawberry. The fennel ice added a soothing chill and helped it all slide down. Most surprising was the pepper, which added a bite and could have nearly choked me had I been unprepared. But I wasn't unprepared and the tastes melded just long enough to make me want more.

The Harvest Vine, however, had plenty more to offer. Our small table hosted tender, perfectly browned scallops served on a bed of lentils; chorizo with some kind of chocolate sauce; "Revuelto de Patatas y Tfufas" (basically a glorified omelet featuring egg, potato and black truffle which turned out to be the star entrée); and a cheese platter with six varieties, each paired with nuts, dried fruits and a different kind of marmalade, paste or sauce. It was a Basque feast so enjoyable that Ashley and Peter are considering holding their rehearsal dinner there.

The evening effectively quelled my oyster craving and kicked off a classic summertime weekend in Seattle.