Okay, so while the Grid Iron Waffle Shop may have won me over with their savory waffles for National Waffle Day, you definitely can’t in good faith mix the two national food holidays for today. For the other national holiday is National Oyster Day, and it doesn’t matter what you do to that waffle batter, I am not eating oyster waffles. XD Regular oysters, however, are quite a different story: a food staple around the world since ancient Roman times, oysters are a stupendous little mollusk that have become super popular for their briny, authentically fishy taste. They’re big deals now, but back in the 19th century, oysters were cheap, abundant, and a food of the working class (try telling that to the NY elite now!) At that time, New York’s waters were perfect for cultivating oysters, who needed both dock-like structures to latch onto, and nitrogen-rich water to feed from. Would you ever believe that New York harbor was the world’s largest oyster bed?? Over-harvesting and pollution, however, destroyed most of the beds, and the increased scarcity of oysters made them more of a high-end delicacy. (Plus, try getting someone to pay $20 a plate for East River Oysters nowadays. Yeesh.)
One of the reasons oysters have become a rare treat is because the most popular way to eat them is fresh and raw, immediately after shucking it from its shell. They’re usually served this way, ice cold (or already on a bed of ice!), with only a small amount of dressing or sauce to be added to each oyster. The real trick is to taste the brininess of the oyster, that coveted flavor that’s treasured in every oyster bar in the world. Of course, raw’s not the only way to go when it comes to oysters: you can also eat them broiled, fried, steamed, baked, smoked…basically any way you would have any other sea mollusk. The favorite traditions of oyster preparation range from nothing at all–just an oyster knife and a squeeze of lemon juice–to the complicated and elaborate, like Oysters Rockefeller. I originally assumed that a dish made from New York oysters and named after a famous New York family would have come from New York, but I am wrong! The dish originated at the New Orleans restaurant Antoine’s in 1899, when owner Jules Alciatore created a mysterious yet delicious sauce that he spooned on top of half-shell oysters, then baked. It became a hit in New Orleans and spread to the rest of the world, with a distinguished name to give the dish a posh atmosphere. Reportedly, Alciatore took the original recipe for Oysters Rockefeller to the grave with him, and all dishes served with this name are just really good guesses to the original sauce. I wonder how they would have stacked up to the original!
You can still find out if Oysters Rockefeller is as tasty as Alicatore’s original aimed to be, at the one place in New York that’s really known for oysters of any kind: the Grand Central Oyster Bar. You wouldn’t assume that eating fresh, sometimes raw, mollusks in the middle of a train station would be a good idea…but this is New York, and even our train terminals are swanky like that. There’s no place greater to try oysters on the half shell if this is your first time tasting them: they offer a full listing of their available oysters, where they were harvested, and what they’ll taste like–anywhere from sweet to super briny. You can have them raw, baked, fried, or even in your drink: a Bloody Mary Oyster Shooter is on the menu, for those who care to be daring with their drinks. But you should definitely try their Oysters Rockefeller: I mean, what better place to try this than in a monument to Gilded Age splendor? The dish is so well liked that celebrity chef Scott Conant raved about it on Food Network’s Best Thing I Ever Ate. With so many oyster possibilities here, you honestly can’t go wrong.
Grand Central Oyster Bar
Grand Central Station
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“Stopped in for some seafood while the family was in town. The raw oysters are obviously to die for (that goes without saying). Duh. Let your waiter/tress choose your dozen+ for you. They know what’s freshest. I should note: Their mignonette sauce is unusual being that is based on a red wine vinegar instead of white or distilled… very interesting, different and refreshing.”–Davis J.
“They have about 40 kinds, give or take, on any given day from anywhere in the world really. I usually try new kids every time we go but blue point and kumamoto are always great stand by’s for first timers. They bring you a cup with fresh horseradish and then the tray comes lined with ice with all of your various oysters atop it, served with lemon slices, mignonette and cocktail sauce.”–Amy B.
But if you’re not looking for the swanky, upscale dining of the Grand Central Oyster Bar, you’ve still got a few options to slurp down those suckers on National Oyster Day. And you don’t have to shell out (heh, pun intended) big bucks to get some interesting oyster dishes in the city, either. Enter Desnuda, a loud, lively bar and lounge that serves “happy hour” oysters at prices that make you think you’re back in the 19th century. Their smoked oyster bar starts at $1 per oyster (depending on the variety), so it’s super easy to order a dozen and tip back a few of those half-shells with friends over Chilean wine. The happy hour deals are only on Sundays and Mondays, so on this particular Sunday, you are in luck! The best trick about the place, however, is how they smoke the oysters: using tea leaves and peppercorns, the oysters are smoked using a modified gravity bong to soak in that deep flavor. They’re served to you on the long wooden bar in upside-down bowls, the interiors swirling with smoke, like you’ve ordered a witch’s cauldron. It puts an extra oomph into the presentation of an otherwise mediocre oyster, and becomes a great conversation piece. If you want to impress a visiting friend with old-school glamor and expensive oysters, head to Grand Central; if you want cheap eats with good wine and a great wow factor, Desnuda is the way to go.
122 E 7th St (between 1st Ave & Avenue A)
“So how does Christian Zammas, the chef, manages to smoke raw oysters every night? In a gravity bong, of course. Zammas made his bong from scratch, using a Sprite bottle and a glass bowl he bought on St. Marks Place. He packs the glass bowl with Lapsang souchong tea leaves and Sichuan peppercorns, lights it on fire, then catches the smoke in a shot glass and places it over a raw oyster. He does it right on the bar. Now for the audience participation part. You lift the shot glass, inhale the intoxicating, pine-like perfume, then raise the oyster to your mouth and let it slip down your throat.”–The Daily News
“On Sundays beginning at 2 p.m. and Mondays from 6 p.m. onward, Blue Points go for $1, Hama Hamas from Washington State run $2, and Massachusetts Wellfleet oysters are $3 each. Half shells are served with a trio of inventive housemade mignonettes ranging from spicy to smoky to sweet.”–MetroMix
“But the best stop of the day was at Desnuda, our go-to wine bar/cevicheria, where we sipped on Nicaraguan beer and white wine, listened to some great chill-out Latin American tunes, tried some amazing ceviche preparations, enjoyed some $1 oysters (specially priced on Sundays from 2-6pm and Monday nights) and got this smoke-show from NYC’s ceviche king, Christian Zammas. We hear he uses a glass smoking apparatus that he made using a Sprite bottle and a glass bowl. He packs the glass bowl with souchong tea leaves and Sichuan peppercorns, lights it, then catches the smoke in a small glass and places it over a raw oyster.”–Wined and Dined
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“Absolutely fantastic. I never venture out to the East Village, but I was thoroughly impressed by the unbelievable freshness of Desnuda. The oysters were so phenomenal that we had 2 orders. I loved the garnish on the oysters–flavorful and unique. The oysters alone were succulent, huge, and the freshest I’ve ever had. The sparkling pinot noir was fantastic, and the ceviche was awesome. Would definitely be back!”–Luna L.
“At first glance this narrow bar looks more like one of those speakeasies where the spotlight is on potent libations produced by mixologists. And this isn’t too surprising once you learn that one of the partners here is Ravi de Rossi of Mayahuel and Cienfuegos. But a look at the menu will reveal that it’s the ceviche, the tiraditos, and of course, the oysters that are the reason for why you ought to pay it a visit. Sundays and Mondays are $1 oyster night but still rather subdued and quiet for the village so it’s a perfect spot for both a classy date and a tête-à-tête with a close friend. Order a dozen oysters and you’ll be presented with beautifully shucked fresh oysters with house made condiments like yuzu and ginger, onion chutney, and hot sauce on the side.”–Ryna D.
Make sure you check out the updated NYC Food Holidays Map to find this most recent holiday!