I've been wondering how the oysters from Galveston Bay's newly revived reef appellations would strike me, and at Goode Company Seafood last week, I had a chance to sample three of them on the halfshell. I was impressed.
Oysters from the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast have long been marketed by their bays or place-names of origin, but such names disappeared along the Gulf Coast as our oysters were shipped east as a bulk commodity. Texans who have grown accustomed to being able to buy our local oysters inexpensively, as an undifferentiated mass, may look askance at the higher-priced Texas appellation oysters.
But I've got to admit I thought the extra cost was worth it in the taste department. The appellation oysters are hand-sorted and for size and shell thickness at Jeri's Seafood, the Smith Point oyster distributor that is pioneering the initiative. They are big and they are gorgeous. Each of the three reef appellations I sampled--Elm Grove, Ladies' Pass and Whitehead Reef--had its own particular flavor story to tell. And their narrative arcs were both richer and longer than that of a half-dozen regular, non-appellation oysters I tried as a control. If the garden variety oysters were a short story, the appellation oysters were a novel.
Goode Company Seafood on Westpark (which, along with chef Bryan Caswell's Reef, is one of the first local restaurants to put the Texas appellation oysters on their menu) is serving the shellfish with clever labelled flags flying above the trayful of ice. That makes it far easier to compare and contrast oysters than having the server point out which is which. (When I'm sampling 3 or 4 kinds of oysters, I always seem to lose track of one kind or another, and half the time I wonder if the server knows what he's talking about.)
While regular oysters are $7.25 per half-dozen and $9.95 per dozen at Goode's, the Texas appellation oysters cost $9.95 and $19.95, respectively. I've always been happy to pay a bit more for my halfshells at Goode's, because I admire the quality and freshness I've consistently found there. So what makes the bigger splurge on the appellation oysters worth it?
The Ladies' Pass oysters, from a reef halfway between Smith Point and the western end of the Bolivar Peninsula, were as delicate as their name. They had a beautiful crisp salinity offset by a creamy quality and a sweet finish. In their bright clarity, they made me think of sunlight on water.
Elm Grove oysters, from a reef slightly further east, were wild things: balanced between forceful salt and sweet, with a big mineral tang on a finish that seemed to last forever. Inside the shells were the gleamy purple tracings that often denote minerality in an oyster's flavor profile.
The Whitehead Reef oysters, from higher up in the East Bay, may have been my favorites. They came on with a blast of salt, followed quickly by a rich, round creaminess and a final lingering salty finish. They were the most luxurious oysters of the bunch.
The regular oysters? Goode is wisely keeping them on the menu so as not to alienate their regulars, and they were perfectly nice oysters, with that late-season creamy sweetness below the salt. But their flavor finished quickly, and there just didn't seem to be as much happening on my palate as I ate them. They were smaller, which meant they had not had as much time to develop flavor as they filtered the water that came their way, with its various salt and mineral and vegetable content.
Perhaps because my jaw is relatively small, I've never developed a preference for really big oysters, but I was tasting that day with local seafood guru Jim Gossen of Louisiana Foods. "I like an oyster that fills my mouth up," he told me cheerfully, slurping up a big old Whitehead Reef. "That way I feel like I can really experience the flavor." He noted that as an oyster matures, it thickens up in the middle and delivers a more concentrated taste, and that the appellation oysters were selected for just that purpose. "It's like the difference between hand-picked versus shovel-picked," he told me. "Just like different-priced bottles of wine--not all of 'em are equal."
Having tasted, I had to agree. I love it that we have a ready source of good, inexpensive oysters in nearby Galveston Bay. And I love it even more that we have more than a dozen revived oyster appellations that will offer us a chance to experience those oysters at their very finest.
But don't take my word for it. There are still three weeks or so left in prime oyster season. Drop in to Goode Co. Seafood or Reef and check out the appellation oysters for yourself. Plenty of customers at Goode Co. had plunged right in. I was there on day three of appellation oyster service, and our very jazzed waiter told us, as he presented our tray with a flourish, that they had completely sold out of them the night before.
(Goode Company Seafood, 2621 Westpark, 713-523-7154.)