New Orleans rewards eaters who aren’t squeamish. While other cities are famous for things like chili on spaghetti, New Orleans is famous for foods that are slimy, slippery, and buggy (if not amphibious).
That said, the way New Orleans robes its oysters in so much butter and fat, you might not recognize them as sea animals. I tasted oysters over a long weekend in 4 forms, not one of them raw. The BP oil spill showed how fragile the ecosystem is, but normally, Gulf Coast oysters are wild and plentiful, growing like weeds and thus suitable for inclusion in a “poor boy” sandwich. They can be eaten raw, but they’re too large and meaty to be swallowed quickly and daintily. Their shells are nearly as big as plates, which means they hold all kinds of sauces surprisingly, sometimes horrifying well.
Our first oysters were the char-grilled ones at Drago’s. I ate two, maybe even three, but I regretted it in the end. They had to be eaten quickly before the fat and cream congealed. I enjoyed the flavor—it’s butter!—but afterwards, it seemed like a waste of an oyster to smother its natural flavor like that.
Frying seemed more respectful, and I did enjoy the oyster po’boy at Tracey’s on Magazine Street a lot more. Crisply fried, clean-tasting, and a good foil to all the pickles and mayo. The fried shrimp po’boy was even better.
I only got a spoonful of the oyster and absinthe dome (see Slide 3) at Commander’s Palace, but this was a triumph, complex and delicate because the oysters had been lovingly bathed in cream, rather than drowned.
But my favorite oysters were at Cochon, the hip Cajun restaurant that won the James Beard award for best chef in the South this year. They may be famous for their pork, but I was won over by their wood-fired oyster roast. The garlicky, spicy sauce was so good I licked my bivalve clean.
One day, I hope I can return and eat some local oysters nice and raw. It’s still not clear whether the local oyster industry is really back—the flooding hasn’t helped—but it’s nice to know that this weekend, people at the New Orleans Oyster Festival will be cheering for its full return.