I hereby confess that Will was not the only oyster virgin sitting at that bar. With the exception of a fried oyster, I had never sampled this purported delicacy of shellfish either. I had always wanted to try. I grew up eating everything from clams to crabs to lobster, but I was just never around oysters. After I moved to New York I realized this was a huge gap in my food experience, upscale oyster bars are all over the city and I found myself standing, a bit awkwardly, at more then one work event where people would start raving about the oysters they were eating last weekend, and oh, have you ever had New Orleans oysters and on and on. The problem, as I saw it, was that you can't just walk into a restaurant and say "One oyster, please" to the waiter. Oysters, so I understand, are full of nuance, there are different types of oyster, different regions, different toppings, not to mention trying not to look stupid (or grossed out) as you pick up a gangly looking half shell and slurp out the uncooked contents. To top this all off, oysters are not the cheapest food in the world, and though they are often priced individually, I had the sneaking suspicion you weren't really supposed to order just one.
How then, was I supposed to figure out oysters, without spending a fortune on a date night that might go completely south if it turned out I hated the things, and without making an ass of myself to a waiter who really has better things to do with his time then explain what "Blue Point" meant to a hick from Pennsylvania?
The answer came as all good things do, written on a card at a bar. Desnuda. Desnuda is a lovely (but small, very small) bar Will and I discovered last year on 7th Street between 1st Ave and Avenue A. This is a lovely stretch of block, housing more then one of our very favorite East Village haunts, and being within a block of a few others. The whole place can only be about ten feet wide, just enough room for the bar, the people working it, and the stools. If you want to make it to the bathroom in the back, you kind of have to flatten yourself against the wall and slide. Come at the wrong time on the wrong night, and you won't get a seat. Will and I have done fairly well timing out this place though, and have sat there on more then few occasions. It is perched on those stools I have had some of the best and most complex glasses of Spanish and South American wines I have ever tasted.
Bonus is that they give you a cone of garlicky truffle salted popcorn, which is ridiculously addictive. They also serve ceviche, or their interpretation of it, but as I've always been on my way to or from a meal when I've visited, I've never really sampled the menu. The chef, though, is not in some remote kitchen where you'll never see him, he's behind the bar, doubling as your waiter. A chef and a sous chef, that's it, serving the wine, dolling out the popcorn, and creating what always appear to be really decent ceviche plates, or at least really pretty ones.
A few weeks ago Will and I had stopped in for a drink when turned away by PDT (without reservations that place is impossible, I should really try getting one). When the check came, amongst the papers in the bill fold was a little card, with the diagram of an oyster. Except, instead of telling you what the parts of the oyster were, it gave you even better information. It told you that if you stopped in on Sunday or Monday, you could get oysters for a dollar a piece. I eyed the chef behind the bar. The man who not only would prepare me food, but give it to me, and ostensibly have to talk to me. This was my chance. Casually as we left, I mentioned returning on dollar oyster night. "We're pretty crazy those nights," he replied. Damn. If I was going to not look like a fool in front of people, and was going to get the full attention of an unharassed chef, it seemed I was going to have to get there early. I made a plan. The place opened at 6, so I would get there no later then 5 minutes after. Will was to meet me in front of the bar. I was going to try an oyster.
It was almost eerie, in a way, I turned onto the street exactly at 6pm, the precise time when many of the places lining it open. St. Stanislaus church's bells rang out over the neighborhood, which I'd never heard before. It was almost a heralding sound. I walked past Bourgeois Pig, a favorite place of mine with really good bottles of wine that they sell for half price on Mondays and Tuesdays. That was not the deal I was looking for this night, however, and I strolled past the weirdly empty bar that had only opened its shutters moments before.
Will met me and we headed inside. It was just us, one other couple, and a woman who seemed to be toting a camera. Menus were handed to us and I set my gaze squarely on the chef. "Okay," I announced, "I have questions." He flipped the menu to the back, where three options were laid out. Blue Points were a dollar, Hama Hamas were two dollars, and there was a third option for three but I didn't worry about that, I was going for a low priced sampling. Upon inquiry I was told that most people order in half dozens or dozens. Will and I talked it over and decided to go with a half dozen of each, a small but decent sampling. I started to inquire about the toppings, but he assured me he would just pick out the three he thought worked best. I love personal attention when a place is quiet and the chef takes a personal interest. Wine suggestions were made to us, we selected, and settled in to watch him work. He and the sous chef set in, hand open and inspecting each oyster. I don't think at any point until then it really occured to me what Will would do with the oysters. I figured we would pick up dinner afterwards, because even if the oysters were really good they didn't seem like a meal. I would have been sad if he didn't at least pick one up, but I guess I just never imagined he would really be into the whole adventure.
As a full dozen raw oysters were placed on a bed of salt in front of us, however, Will didn't flitch. Just as I did he picked up a Blue Point, loosened it with a cocktail fork from its shell, and slurped the whole thing into his mouth. I just may marry him all over again. We had a lot of fun, playing with the spicy, sweet, and asian flavored toppings, trying our best to detect the differences between the East Coast Blue Points and the West Coast Hama Hamas and sipping our perfectly selected wines. The photographer, who was from some New York event website (I'll let you know if the photos ever turn up) took shots of the bar, the people sitting at the bar, and a plate of six oysters the chef had done up for her. After she left he picked up the plate, cleared our now empty shells, and placed them in front of us. The chef's name, we found out, was Dominic, and he may be my new best friend.
It was a case of right place at the right time, but some of that timing was my own planing. I've read online reviewers who've complained about this place, that they couldn't get a seat, that the food ran out early (since they serve a lot of things raw they insist on freshness and don't keep too much around to go bad, which I kinda agree with) and that they weren't given enough courtesy. My opinion is, when it comes to the nice bars in the East Village, you have to plan. These places won't let you stand around and hover over tables, if there aren't any seats, you have to leave. I personally enjoy not being hovered over, and feel that if you want to try the place that badly, do yourself a favor and get there early. You'll get kick ass service, they won't be out of anything, and when the really hot time of night rolls around, when all the really trendy people are jockeying for a seat at these bars, you'll already be comfortable with a drink in hand. And you'll get to hear some pretty bells.