02-22-2014 NYTimes.com: Loss Leaders on the Half Shell

Some excerpts from the article:

The joint is jumpin’: Three mixologists in striped dress shirts, dark slacks and suspenders pour drinks almost as fast as three shuckers send platter after platter of raw oysters to their fate. A bluesy soundtrack wafts over the standing-room-only din as patrons sip and slurp, oblivious to the crowd that has gathered outside for what can be a 90-minute wait.

It feels like 9 o’clock on a Saturday night. It is 4:30 on a dank weekday afternoon.

The cheap late-afternoon oyster is to a restaurant what a liter bottle of Coca-Cola is to a supermarket: the loss leader that gets customers in the door, at which point they buy something else at full price. It’s a nationwide binge, attributable in great part to the rapid growth of oyster farms on the East and West Coasts. East Coast production alone has doubled in the last five years, even as wild oyster reefs approach extinction.

Oysters acquire their distinctive flavor based on the water in which they grow, so they give people a lot to talk about. “They’re coming from great growers who are developing their own terroir, like wine growers,” said Jeffrey Hubbeling, general manager of Shaw’s Crab House in Chicago.

But Mark Kurlansky, author of “The Big Oyster,” says something bigger than demographics is at work here: it’s destiny. In the early 1900s, both rich and poor New Yorkers ate oysters, whether at elegant dinners or bought from street carts. He believes that the people lined up outside Maison Premiere are hard-wired to love this particular bivalve; they simply needed the opportunity.

He doesn’t see himself as part of a trend, which implies a temporary infatuation, but as a standard-bearer for a revived tradition.

“People order one of each, which is the poorest way to eat them,” he said. “You’re never going to get a true taste. Twelve different oysters is like 12 sips of different wine. Each one impacts the next, so there’s no true flavor.”

If it were up to him, he’d counsel people to try six oysters at a time, three each of two different varieties, to gain a better sense of the difference between a Barnstable oyster from Massachusetts (“briny, sweet, butter”) and a Totten Inlet oyster from Washington State (“medium brine with watermelon accents, beach grown”). But it’s out of his control; people seem to prefer the sampler approach….

for the full article: Loss Leaders on the Half Shell – NYTimes.com.

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