Restaurant Reviews

Half Shell Face-Off

The Conway Cup oysters we sampled at the newly opened Oceanaire Seafood Room in the Galleria were so big and dense and meaty, I suspect they were actually Belons from Maine that had been accidentally mislabeled. Oyster aficionado John Bebout loved the Conway Cups, too. He liked the Blue Points second best, mainly because they tasted like Gulf oysters, which the Oceanaire Seafood Room refuses to serve.

Those were the standouts on our Oceanaire oyster sampler, a tray of shaved ice topped with a dozen and a half oysters -- two each of nine varieties, all from various East Coast locations between Canada and Connecticut.

Unlike the wild oysters in Galveston Bay, which can't be legally harvested until they reach a shell size of three inches, these farm-raised Northern oysters can be marketed at any size. Many growers, especially in Canada, where oysters grow very slowly, sell two-inch oysters, which yield less than a tablespoon of meat. They are so small, it's hard to tell what they taste like. Several of the oysters on the sampler were also so similar, there was no way to tell them apart.

Oceanaire's cold-water oysters are superior in quality to Gulf oysters, our waiter told us. I was about to say, "Horseshit!"

But instead I asked the waiter if he ate oysters. He said "No." His opinion was supplied to him by the restaurant chain's management in Minneapolis.

Nevertheless, the service was impeccable. Bebout was wearing black pants, so the waiter replaced his white napkin with a black one so it wouldn't leave any lint. When Bebout started to tuck his black napkin in his shirt, the waiter appeared with a napkin chain and fastened it around his neck.

When I asked the waiter about oyster wines, the manager appeared and gave me a learned discussion about Sancerres, muscadets and the failure of the American wine industry to produce any decent food wines. When I asked him for the tartest white in the house, he recommended a Spanish wine called Nora that's made with the Albarino varietal in the Rias Baixas region. It was a perfect oyster wine and a hell of deal at $38 a bottle.

The Oceanaire Seafood Room in the Galleria is the eleventh location of the Minneapolis-based chain, and it's a very attractive restaurant. The décor features lustrous mahogany paneling, elegant hardwood floors, stainless steel fixtures and dividers of wavy glass. It's supposed to conjure up the mood of a 1920s ocean liner.

My oyster-eating companion wasn't all that impressed with the rest of the tiny bivalves, but he loved the restaurant anyway. Retro touches like a 95¢ tomato juice cocktail, which turned out to be a Virgin Mary, tickled him. We sampled a cup of excellent clam chowder that was loaded with big chunks of quahog clams and lots of bacon. We also got an awesome shrimp cocktail served with juicy, extra-large shrimp. A blackboard lists the fresh fish of the day, and the selection is impressive.

Bebout picked out his table for next time, a giant round booth in the back (table number 54), which was upholstered in red leather and looked out over the entire "deck."

There were 11 varieties of oysters available at McCormick & Schmick's in Uptown Park when Bebout and I dropped in on a recent Saturday afternoon. We got two of each, plus a couple of extra Malpeques to make an even two dozen. For the sake of experiment, I grouped the oysters into categories.

We ate the four Canadian oysters back to back. The wild-harvested Malpeques were my favorite of the group. But all of them were around two inches long with little in the way of meat. The four Massachusetts and Rhode island oysters, on the other hand, were larger, less salty and had a meatier texture. The Blue Points and Chesapeake Bays were virtually indistinguishable from Gulf oysters.

It would have been nice to compare these East Coast virginicas to Gulf Coast oysters side by side; the C. virginica species is found all the way from Canada to the Gulf Coast. McCormick & Schmick's menu advertises "Houston's Best Oysters," but the selections don't include any Texas oysters at all. It's company policy never to serve warm-water oysters, the waiter told us.

When I did an oyster tasting there a couple of years ago (see "Sex, Death and Oysters," March 25, 2004), all of the oysters on the menu came from the Pacific Northwest. McCormick & Schmick's original location is in Portland, Oregon, and the chain is an ardent supporter of the Pacific seafood industry.

In the past year, national restaurant chains like McCormick & Schmick's and the Oceanaire Seafood Room that serve Pacific oysters in their other locations across the country have had to change their oyster menus in Texas. Now they can only serve the native (C. virginica) species here, due to a peculiar state law.

In spring 2005, I attended an educational seminar put on by officials from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department that explained the "Prohibited Species" regulations to seafood dealers and restaurant owners.

There had been a law on the books for many years that prohibited possession of live Pacific (C. gigas) oysters in Texas. The intention was to prevent a rogue oyster grower from planting the Pacific species in Texas waters and thus endangering the native (C. virginica) oysters. Pacific oysters can quickly take over an oyster reef, and they also pass a disease called MSX to other species, so the law makes a lot of sense.

But last year that law was expanded to include all nonnative oyster species, and its enforcement was extended to include seafood dealers and restaurants. The idea that somebody is going to dump oysters that sell for two dollars apiece into Galveston Bay seems a little silly to me. And why would such a ban affect seafood restaurants in Dallas and El Paso, hundreds of miles from the water? But when I voiced my skepticism at the seminar, another concern was raised.

"California banned our oysters!" someone in the room shouted. Suddenly, I understood what was going on. In April of 2003, the state of California enacted a ban on Gulf oysters harvested from April through October because of deaths and illnesses from vibrio vulnificus, a naturally occurring bacteria found in summer oysters from the Gulf.

Gulf oystermen are cynical about California's ban because it targets only Gulf of Mexico oysters. A related bacteria, Vibrio parahaemolyticus in Washington State oysters, was responsible for 116 reported cases of illness last summer.

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, in August 1997 the largest outbreak of Vibrio parahaemolyticus infections in North America was traced to summertime consumption of raw oysters harvested from California and the Pacific Northwest. In that outbreak, 209 people fell ill and one died.

The fact is, regardless of where they're harvested, oysters are fat and sweet in the winter and full of nasty stuff in the summer. If California really wanted to safeguard the public health, they would ban restaurants from serving half-shell oysters in months without an "R." But by eliminating only the cheap Gulf Coast oysters from the market, California is actually running an economic protection scam for their own high-priced oysters.

Texas authorities deny that the law, or its new enforcement parameters, have any economic or retaliatory motivation. But West Coast wags are calling it an "oyster war." Our waiter at Oceanaire summed up the prevailing wisdom: "California banned Gulf oysters in the summer, so Texas banned Pacific oysters to get even."

Limited to the native (C. virginica) species, Oceanaire Seafood Room and McCormick & Schmick's have put together an oyster bar made up entirely of C. virginica oysters, but from distant cold-water regions. These two oyster bars provide Houstonians with a fascinating opportunity to taste C. virginica species from all over the country and compare them with our own Gulf oysters -- although you have to do your comparison in two different restaurants.

Minnesota and Oregon seafood chains have every right to refuse to serve Gulf oysters. But when they come down here and talk trash about our local products, they are just being rude. In the prime of their season, which runs roughly from Christmas to Easter, Gulf oysters are fresher, plumper, sweeter and by far a better bargain than the pathetically minuscule specimens these restaurants are importing from the East Coast.

But don't take my word for it. Go eat a sampler plate of oysters at Oceanaire Seafood Room or McCormick & Schmick's. Then stop by Willie G's on Post Oak, Magnolia Grill on Richmond or Joyce's on Westheimer and get a dozen Galveston Bay oysters. Let me know which ones you find most satisfying.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh