I was horrified the first time I confronted a baked oyster.
Although my childhood shellfish exposure was limited to the oyster crackers that my mother served with chili, I'd watched enough black-and-white movies to be vaguely aware of oysters Rockefeller and clams casino. But once I'd tasted an oyster, I couldn't imagine wanting to disguise its delicate flavors with heaps of spinach and a dose of Pernod. Burnishing an oyster with cheese and bacon seemed like a still worse idea. An oyster is not a pizza crust, I griped.
Yet as I traveled to legendary oyster towns, I realized restaurant kitchens meant no harm with their jalapenos and onions and Monterrey jack cheese. When Papa Joe's in Apalachicola, Fla. anoints its oysters with cheddar and hot sauce, or Gilhooley's in San Leon, Tex. grates Parmesan over its oysters before grilling them, the brilliance lies not just in the balancing of fat and brine, but in the audacity of branding bivalves with a local stamp. Paradoxically, carpeting an oyster with extra ingredients is an expression of oyster pride.
My favorite baked oysters in Seattle are served at Shuckers, the oyster bar at the Fairmont Olympic. There are eight different preparations on Shuckers' current menu, including oysters cooked up with smoked salmon and marinara sauce. There's also a terrific house-smoked oyster that tastes exactly like you'd make if you and your buddies were on the beach with a match and a burlap sack.
But top honors belong to the slightly sweet Olympic oysters, topped with Dungeness crab, bacon and a wisp of tomato hollandaise. For eaters who can't taste merroir, that's an oyster that shouts Seattle. At Shuckers, there are always tourists listening. But with an oyster this good, there should be local oyster lovers listening too.