Friday, December 18, 2009

Champagne wishes and oyster dreams

I've always liked shellfish. Even when I was younger and a fairly picky eater, I still ate shrimp (they were fried, but hey, it counts). Since moving to New England, I have become completely enamored with almost anything in a shell. You can get shellfish of amazing quality out here. Local lobsters and scallops pepper the menus at fine-dining restaurants and roadside shacks alike.

Yet as I devoured any shrimp, scallop, lobster, or clam put in my path, I neglected one shellfish completely for two whole years: the oyster.

I get why some people think eating oysters is a little weird, or even gross. If you have problems with texture, oysters may not be for you - at least, not in their raw form. Oysters are versatile enough to show up in a variety of cooked dishes, adding a little briny shellfish-sweetness to almost anything they touch.

I was lucky enough to attend (another) local dinner at the River Tavern in Chester last Tuesday night, this one focusing heavily on local oysters farmed in Noank, a small village near Mystic. Steve Plant from the Noank Oyster Co-op not only provided the oysters, but also provided lively commentary about oyster farming, sustainable aquaculture, and a slew of other topics.

As usual, I attended with my fabulous Foodie Friend Loree, who once again took pictures for this post.

You might think that a four-course dinner designed around oysters would be a one-note affair - but not with James Wayman (left, standing) in the kitchen. Using other locally farmed meats and produce, James crafted a meal that highlighted the subtle flavor characteristics of the oysters to their best advantages.

Cooked oysters were served in a warm salad of sorts comprised of onions, celery, and that glorious thick-cut bacon I've had in other River tavern dishes. The second course consisted of (very) lightly smoked oysters, still in the shell, lightly sauced with something lemony (I always wish I had a printed menu from these dinners) and served with a brown butter crouton. The little bit of smoke gave a little "oomph" to the oyster's natural saltiness. It didn't taste smoky - it just seemed like the natural flavors had more depth.

These appetizers of sorts were follwed up with two meat-centric blockbusters: smoked duck from Soeltl Farm, served with carrots and brussels sprouts with a mustard-y sauce; and James' version of Korean barbecued pork and cucumber kimchee. (Cucumber kimchee is a genuis idea. The cool, crisp cucumbers are the perfect foil for the heat.) Two gigantic fresh oysters were served in shells alongside the pork, providing a refreshing finish to the dish (well, they provided me with a refreshing finish - I am sure other people may have started with them).

Duck from Soeltl Farm

Pork, kimchee, oysters

The conclusion to this meal was a savory dessert: a poached pear served over a bed of creamy ricotta cheese and topped with a crunchy chocolate biscotti. The poached pear brought to mind mulled or spiced wine - perfect flavors for a cold night.

Poached pear with ricotta

I would have been happy to simply drink water alongside this meal. After all, what beverage can compete with oysters, smoked duck, barbecued pork, and kimchee?

As it turns out, there's only one: Champagne. I'm not talking about the $4.99 stuff you buy to serve to 27 people on New Year's Eve (yes, I buy it, too) - I'm talking about real Champagne, grower Champagne from smaller French vineyards that shows amazing character (not just bubbles) in a glass.

I'm only just beginning to explore Champagne, and this dinner was a delightful introduction. You can really pick up the flavors of the grapes used in these smaller-produced varities. A Chardonnay-based Champagne has a heady, almost yeasty smell and taste. A rose Champagne made with Pinot Nior grapes tasted heavily of strawberries - but was not the least bit sweet. In fact, it was bone-dry - a perfect example that "fruity" and "sweet" are not synonyms.

Going to this dinner was sort of a Christmas gift to myself - and if that weren't enough, I recevied an actual Christmas gift when Donna Lesczczynski of Soeltl Farm presented all of us that attended with golden goose egg ornaments. Mine is hanging on my tree, and every time I look at it, I will think of this wonderful night of great food and amazing company.

No comments: