I read Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast once a year. It reminds me why I appreciate my not-so-secret love affair with all things edible. I picked up a fresh copy this year, and after reading a bit, I paused with the first mention of oysters.
Hemingway describes his oysters, and the strong taste of the sea with their faint metallic taste that his cold white wine washes away. That sea taste and the succulent texture, and the cold, sweet liquor from the oyster has him happy to make plans and enables him to continue his work.
I wanted that sort of inspiration and made plans of my own to dine on cold beer and oysters all week.
Being close enough to the Gulf, Dallas is fortunate to have a constant fresh supply of the mollusks. As of late, however, we have been inundated with talk of government intervention with regard to the Gulf Coast oysters due to the naturally occurring bacteria that has some people running scared certain times of the year. The FDA recommends that during the warmer months we consume oysters that have been processed by radiation, freezing or pasteurization.
This could possibly present a problem regarding the flavor and quality of an oyster.
With a season that is colder than normal it's a good time for the oyster: They are fat, happy and certainly at the peak of freshness and flavor. Jon Alexis at TJ's Seafood in Dallas says that the "cold weather has made procuring seasonal seafood difficult: Boats aren't catching stone crabs and the crawfish don't realize its crawfish season yet. But cold weather is great for oysters."
The ritual and flavors that equip the oyster experience are as varied as the people that enjoy them. The oyster summons up the word of the moment, umami. Considered the fifth category of taste, which literally means the essence of deliciousness, the oyster is joined in that category by foods such as Parmesan cheese, soy sauce and a very ripe tomato.
Look for a sweet brininess, a delicate brothy liquor and a slight crunch that actually expands the flavor profile of the oyster with each chew. Some will serve with a mignonette, others more commonly offer a horseradish laden cocktail sauce.
Today's Toque to Toque opponents, Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen and Half Shells, are respected locally for their seafood offerings, but each serves a different version of the oyster.
For this competition, we will examine the oysters at Pappadeaux, which carries the fresh Gulf Oyster compared to the banded (shut), pressure-treated oyster at Half Shells. To award victory and this week's bragging rights, we will look firsthand to discover flavor and texture differences, if any.
I was curious about the Pappadeaux signage across town that offers a dozen of the fresh Gulf oysters for a mere four bucks. The price certainly had me skeptical of quality, particularly since I had been reading about the FDA controversy surrounding the fresh oysters.
These feelings were laid to rest as I was assured that Pappadeaux will only sell fresh oysters during the height of the season, and substitute the banded oyster during the off-season.
The oysters are shucked to order and took just a few minutes for my tray to arrive.They were visually perfect, plump and brimming with liquor. The taste was as fresh an example of an oyster as I have ever been served; sweet and full of the sea flavor that you would expect from a great oyster. Firm and well shucked with no sign of shell. There was a slight after-wash of a freshly peeled cucumber.
Later I caught up with Christina Pappas who admitted that their customers know their oyster and "They appreciate the flavor, the plumpness and the fact that they come right from our own Gulf." She went on to offer, "At Pappadeaux our Gulf Coast Oysters go straight from dock to table. There is no middleman. And of course, our guests love the price!"
With a dozen of these beauties in my belly, I ran up to Legacy and the Tollway to find Half Shells. Half Shells has a few locations in town and is owned by the same group that runs Fish City Grill.
Half Shells tempted me with their fried oyster nachos, but I stayed on course and asked for their version of the Gulf oyster. There are several options of the banded oyster in Dallas. One is processed by Ameripure. I have sampled some of these recently and found them lacking. Half Shells serves the Gold Band oyster. Gold Band processes their oysters using a pressure treatment that is supposed to reduce the dangerous bacteria to a non-detectable level and leave the oyster flavor and texture intact.
I ordered a dozen of the raw and quickly made my sauce concoction that included heaps up fresh horseradish. Before inundating the oyster with odd sauces that would mask any of that fresh umami, I slurped up one of the Gold Bands straight from the shell.
My first detection was that the oyster was a lot firmer than usual. Perhaps from treatment. I also detected a more pronounced seaweed flavor. It didn't have quite the spark that the untreated oyster carried. This particular oyster had an almost copper aftertaste.
When speaking to the owner of Half Shells, Bill Bayne explained that "the number one concern is taste and quality, but safety for our customers is important, and Gold Band provides this for us."
Bayne went on to explain that most of his customers cannot detect any difference in the oyster.
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I think Jon at TJ's may have summed it up well for me, "While we're intrigued by the science of the process, we have stayed away from the Gold Band and Ameripure high pressure-treated oysters. The oyster is banded, but it can still lose some of its unique brininess...and that is the best part of a raw gulf oyster."
I really enjoyed the oysters at Pappadeaux. Their freshness and distinct Texas Gulf flavor is something that we may not be enjoying much longer if the FDA has its way. I did not allow that sentiment to guide me. Rather for its pronounced flavor and texture, I am awarding Pappadeaux today's win.
Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen
725 S. Central Expressway, Richardson
5800 Legacy Drive, Plano