Oysters at Shaw’s: A Chicago Afternoon

This is the way oysters are often served in Paris, where the accompaniment of choice is dark bread and salted butter.  Sometimes there’ll be a mignonette sauce as well.  Mignonette is a mixture of Champagne vinegar, minced shallot and coarsely ground black pepper.  It’s tart, really, really tart, and because it’s so puckery I’ve never gotten why it should be good with oysters, but it certainly has its fans.

At Shaw’s, where the oysters are exceptional, they’re served with lemon wedges, a cup of cocktail sauce with a dollop of horseradish at its center, and a cup of mignonette sauce that’s been turned into a granite. Even frozen and flaked I don’t want it near my oysters, but there’s no denying that mignonette granite is a brilliant idea.

So there I was eating the meat of my oysters with a fork, slurping the oyster juice straight from the source, and using my knife to scrape up any little piece of the muscle that might have been left in the shell.  This is a practice I learned from M. Jacques, the all-knowing maitre d’hotel at Le Dome in Paris, who saw those nubbins in my shells one night and came over to show me how to liberate them.  “They are so good, you shouldn’t miss them,” is what he said as he scraped.

When my lunch was finished (alas), I turned and saw a guy with a NY Yankees cap just starting on his platter.  He worked his way clockwise through the oysters, methodically draining each one of its juice, even shaking the shells a few times to make sure they were dry, carefully concocting a mix of cocktail sauce and Tabasco, then quickly eating the oysters and washing each one down with a single gulp of Coke.

Across the bar from him, three twenty-something guys from Mexico were attacking their big platter of oysters with great relish.  Two of the three drained off the liquor; all three topped their oysters with salt, pepper, Tabasco and lime (I wonder if they’re on to something with the lime – I want to try it); and they each chased them with something different: one drank Coke, one had a cocktail that looked like a sunset over the Florida Keys and the last man drank a Corona.

Everyone seemed happy but, even though portraits of Julia Child, a true oyster fan, were hung in the bar, no one finished their oysters the way Julia used to.  After Julia had gotten every little bit of juice from the oyster, she’d return the shell to the tray with the kind of triumphant clack you’d make if you were laying down a winning domino.  Shells went back to the tray upside down and with good reason.  As Julia explained:  “Turn them over and you know they’re finished – saves you the disappointment of pulling up an empty.”

*The oyster platter had one of each of the following:

  • Fishers Island
  • Sunset Beach
  • Quilcene
  • Blashke Island
  • Fanny Bay
  • Olympia

Dorie Greenspan

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