Back at the beginning of the year, Sarah and I took a weekend trip up north of the city to Tomales Bay. Squirreled away in the fog and foothills along the bay is a small oyster farm called the Tomales Bay Oyster Co. This place is a magical place where you can roll up with a picnic cooler filled with Bud Light Lime, some gloves and a shucking knife, and can buy a bag of live oysters that a cute blonde Australian gal hauls straight out of the water for you. The seawater splashes off the bag and the girl eyes you and asks “you know what to do with these?” before pointing you towards one of several dozen weathered picnic tables. This isn’t a restaurant and it’s not really a park; it’s just a beautiful area where you can shuck and devour as many oysters as you could ever possibly want. Nearby, families are grilling on the worn camping grills posted next to each table, or perhaps blaring mariachi music and lazily poking at some empty shells. It is so completely awesome that, in an email months ago to Chef Achatz when I found out he and Nick would be out here promoting their book, I mentioned that even if I didn’t get a chance to meet him while he was here, if he had a half-day to spare he should definitely check this place out. He responded with “Oh yeah, I’ve been to that place once. It’s awesome.”
In the months since, we’ve had several visitors. With almost every one, we offer to take them to this place to spend an afternoon basking in the sun and eating raw oysters. When my family came about a month ago, 6 of us managed to down 100 oysters, several Coors Lights, a bottle of Crystal, and another bottle of homemade cocktail sauce all in about 45 minutes.
It probably goes without saying, then, that when I flipped across this recipe in trying to choose some summer recipes to try, the idea of playing with oysters was greatly appealing. This dish is a bit hilarious in the juxtapositions of texture and flavor it uses. The main component is “Oyster Cream”, which is just…cream cooked with oysters in it. Huh! After letting some oysters steep in a pot of boiled cream for a half-hour or so, the cream takes on the flavor of the oysters and some earthy notes that make the whole thing more than the sum of its parts. Sarah thought I’d used mushrooms in there somewhere, but nope, it’s just oysters. From the cream, we combine with some Agar, egg yolk, and cornstarch, to make a sort of pudding with some elasticity and firmness. This pudding, once set, is sheared in a blender to give a nice smooth puree.
Or, at least, that’s what it’s supposed to do. The first time through, my pudding was set extremely firmly, and blending it took a lot of cajoling. Just beyond the point that it started to smooth out, this happened:
Honestly I have no idea what’s actually happening here. There’s no oil or butter added to this mixture, so I’m not sure what’s going on that would cause separation like this. I DO know that a scant second too long in the blender, and my nice puree goes all curdled and grody like this. Well, not GRODY…it still tastes great, but no one would want to eat something that looks like that. So, I remade the whole thing (grand total of oysters shucked: 24), this time being very, very careful with the blender and stopping periodically to re-chill the mixture when it started to warm up in the blender pot. This worked much better, but I was struck at how incredibly delicate and finicky this stuff is. It tastes pretty commonplace though; sweet and salty and oystery and luxurious.
The oyster cream is paired with a gelee of horseradish and thai pepper. This stuff is so totally amazingly BAD ASS. I basically make yet another ‘tea’ of freshly-grated horseradish, chili, and vinegar, then let it steep for a half hour or so. After this time, I took the lid off and inhaled deeply, imagining I’d get a nice subtle scent of horseradish.
Instead, I felt like I’d gotten maced in the face.
Seriously, this stuff is SO STRONG. My eyeballs went numb, my nose was so confused that a sneeze turned into tears, and my face felt sunburned. It was awesome. The mixture is strained and mixed with some gelatin to set, then broken into little chunks. The chunks, thankfully, are much more delicate and manageable, sweet and with that wasabi-like front-end heat that’s there and gone.
Also accenting the horseradish and oyster cream are small quarter-sized discs of Lychee. I’d never had lychee before! I knew what they were, but in jars they always looked gross to me. Berkeley Bowl sells them fresh, so I was excited to have a reason to try buying them. Lychees are pretty wild; they have a knurled, spiky exterior shell that can be peeled away easily. Inside is a gelatinous fruit with a pit. When I tasted it for the first time, the flavor reminded me immediately of rose water. So cool! The fruit is sliced into small discs that have the texture and look of something oyster-like. This is hilarious to me; when assembled, the horseradish and lychee look like oyster bits, while it’s the cream that carries the oyster flavor.
Drizzled into the bottom of the bowl is fresh chervil juice; this is made by blanching chervil and blending with ice water in a blender. Chervil has a distinctive, sweet, indefinable flavor that I still have trouble articulating (which makes it hard for me to picture its flavor in my head still). It blended with the rest of the ingredients very nicely, adding a sweet, cool note (sort of like a punchier cucumber juice might).
Finally, the cherry on top of this sundae is osetra caviar. I’ve never bought caviar before, and the few times I’ve had it in restaurants that are caliber enough to serve it, my specific memory of how it tastes is overshadowed by so many other factors (I’m sure I had it both times at Alinea, but I can’t really remember it because of the sensory overload). Turns out, caviar is hella expensive! Buying something that’s stupid expensive without knowing exactly what I’m doing is nerve-wracking and not a practice I generally indulge in. I mean, why would I ever drop $100 on a bottle of wine I’d never tasted? Answer: I wouldn’t.
There are quite a few outlets for caviar in the bay area, though. There are places in the Ferry Building that sell it, online retailers that are based in the area, and you can even find it at BevMo. Within the range of price for Osetra caviar, BevMo seemed to be at the low end ($45 for an ounce of it), while a place called the California Caviar Company offers some for well over $100. When I was buying my oysters from Piedmont Grocery, I saw a small sign saying they sold it too. Figuring at least I could ask some questions to learn a bit, I inquired about it. Piedmont carries a california-based caviar line called Lafayette Caviar, which seemed to be ‘kinda in the middle’ of the two prices of the other places. The employee I spoke with pointed out a $80 ounce of Russian Osetra, but then pointed to a $60 ounce of “California Select”, which he said his purveyor insisted was comparable to what’s coming out of the Caspian Sea these days, but is farmed in Sacramento. I figured I might as well try it, so I bought the lower-end one.
As far as caviar experiences go, I would say this was ‘pretty ok’. My impression wasn’t strong enough to motivate me to ever buy this again (unlike truffle, which I’d buy all day long if I could). Maybe that’s testament to it not being that awesome then? The flavor was a balance between nutty, salty, and ‘fishy’ and was perfectly fine. The texture was a little ‘gummy’ and the eggs looked in many cases to be a little wilted. What does that imply? Improper storage? Past its shelf life? It still tasted nice enough when paired with all the rest of these ingredients, and overall I really loved this one. It’s luxurious and makes me feel like a bit of a gangster when eating it.