SAN DIEGO ( TheStreet) -- For years, a meal that included oysters was the very definition of luxury. The provenance of the rich. A sign of living large. But there are those in the culinary world who would argue that oysters no longer represent such luxury now that they're so widely available. Restaurants across the country offer them for purchase individually, reaching out to those who can't afford a whole dozen. They're being sold for a $1 each during happy hours from East to West Coast. And they are being fried and sold spilling out of cardboard containers like glorified french fries. "They used to be about luxury years ago," says executive chef Michael DeGeorgio, of Vetro by Russo's on the Bay, in Howard Beach, N.Y. "Now a lot of places are selling them by the piece and people are able to get three or four pieces. When I started in the business, it was always said that rich people eat rack of lamb, oysters, crabmeat and filet mignon. But chefs have made smaller portions of oysters now and break up recipes so people are able to enjoy them even if they don't have a ton of money." All of which means restaurants wanting to retain the luxurious image of oysters have had to step up their game, developing more creative oysters dishes and more innovative oyster presentations. So here's a look at some of the places where oysters retain their dignity or have taken on a new life, being served in ever more creative ways, or at the very least are being served in the luxurious surroundings they so richly deserve.
Donovan's Prime Seafood, San DiegoThe oysters. The sparkling sake. The service. It's hard to know where to begin when it comes to Donovan's Prime Seafood in San Diego. But let's start with Jeff Fortin. The manager. If it's possible to arrange to have Fortin as your dining companion while eating oysters at Donovan's Prime Seafood, consider yourself lucky. Extremely lucky. Fortin's knowledge of oysters, oyster growing, oyster serving, oyster seasons, the science of oysters -- and, well, anything and everything oyster -- is encyclopedic. Fortin started reading up and studying all things oysters years ago, and the knowledge has paid off.
He is a man who truly knows how to eat and serve an oyster and preserve its dignity. Donovan's deconstructed oyster shooter is just one example of the thought put into luxuriously proper oyster eating here. Rather then drowning an oyster in cheap liquor, as typical oyster shooters do, totally obscuring its flavor, Fortin serves an oyster shooter with the oyster on the side. And right next to the oyster is a sliver of cucumber. Here's how Fortin says it should be done: Eat the oyster first. Savor its flavor. Drink the liquor. Nibble on a sliver of cucumber. The result: a rich oyster experience that's not lost amid an overwhelming swirl of vodka. Finished off by a palate cleansing snap of cucumber. In May, Donovan's Prime Seafood installed its oyster bar, and it keeps an extensive variety of the country's best oysters on hand, which is probably one of the other primary reasons why eating oysters here remains a luxury. And here's its other secret to being one of the most luxurious oyster venues in the city, if not the country: Cucumber mignonette topping. Oyster shucker Ryan Stickel and his unique spin on Oysters Rockefeller. Tabasco granite. Let's go in order. First, the cucumber mignonette. Splash some of this on an oyster and it will elevate your oyster-eating experience to an entirely new level. The freshness of the oyster combined with the burst of cucumber translates into a unique, mouth-watering flavor. "Cucumber is a typical trait or aftertaste of oysters," Fortin explains. "And for big, briny oysters it tones down the brine." Then there's Stickel and the Oysters Rockefeller, which he created with chef Mariano Rayon. The baked oysters are served on a bed of aromatics that include cinnamon, cardamom, anise and juniper. So as you lean in to take a bite of the oyster, the sweet smells of cinnamon and cardamom drift upward and disguise any hint of seafood.
"I've never seen shaved frozen Tabasco anywhere else," Fortin says. "We're trying to do something different with oysters." And one last tip from Fortin: Oysters are fabulous when accompanied by a sparkling sake. In this case, Zipang made by Gekkeikan. Trust me, he's right.
Vetro by Russo's on the Bay, Howard Beach, N.Y.The East Coast version of Donovan's Jeff Fortin can be found in Howard Beach, N.Y. Executive chef Michael DeGeorgio brings a unique creativity to his presentation of oysters, always thinking about and developing new ways to serve them. Here's two examples. DeGeorgio's Oysters Capricciosa involves lightly coating oysters in panko crumbs, frying them and serving them beneath a salad of red onion, grape tomatoes, plum tomatoes, tarragon, garlic and baby arugula. The salad is sprinkled with olive all, champagne vinegar and chili pepper. "Italian people do veal chops topped with salad. I decided to do an oyster that way," explains DeGeorgio. He also features regularly another out-of-the-ordinary approach to oysters -- a dish he calls Tuscan Oysters. Think of it as DeGeorgio's spin on Oysters Rockefeller. In this case the dish involves topping oysters with a mixture of sauteed wild mushrooms, spinach and Fontina cheese. And unlike the "capricious" woman he named his first oyster dish after, who never knows what she wants, Vetro's customers know exactly what they want. DeGeorgio says his oyster dishes sell like crazy.
JRDN, San DiegoThe luxury in the oyster experience here comes in large part from the spectacular view. JRDN overlooks Pacific Beach. It is literally perched on the edge of the beach, giving you an unobstructed view of the Pacific Ocean. Sit at one of the tables on JRDN's patio slurping oysters as you watch the sun set over the ocean. Or you can choose to sit at the bar, which looks directly out at the beach as well. Either way, you can't beat the combination of a great view and JRDN's fabulous, over-the-top Grande Platter or their Petite Platter. No matter which size you order, the platter is the very definition of luxurious seafood eating. It comes overflowing with oysters, littleneck clams, jumbo prawns and Alaskan King Crab. The Grande Platter is $75, the Petite, $45.
"When you walk this platter through the dining room, people see it and say 'I want one,' " says Eric McConville, JRDN's assistant general manager. And here's another reason JRDN's should be on your list of one of the country's remaining luxurious places to have oysters -- McConville personally tastes 10 to 12 different varieties of oysters each week, to ensure the restaurant is offering the best oysters possible. "The main reason oysters are so luxurious is we have to search high and low to find high-quality oysters," he says.
Topnotch Resort and Spa, Vt.So maybe a BLT doesn't immediately conjure up images of luxury, diamonds and pearls. But when you add an oyster to that BLT, now you have something worth talking about, something intriguing for the more sophisticated diner. Chef Steve Sicinski's spin on oysters involves combining it with some of Vermont's absolute freshest produce of the season -- specifically, baby heirloom tomatoes. To this he adds crisp lettuce and locally smoked bacon. "Right now in Vermont it's peak tomato season with all the fresh baby heirlooms," Sicinski says. "And this dish definitely has a summer feel, and we definitely use really good tomatoes. The tomato is as important as oyster." The oysters are lightly fried and the dish is assembled by hand, layer by layer -- with the topping of bacon, lettuce and tomato. It presents very delicately, an extremely elegant, pared-down version of a blue-collar BLT. "To me oysters speak of the East Coast, whether you eat them in a fine dining experience like here at Topnotch, or on the side of the dock at a picnic table," Sicinski says.
The Modern, HonoluluLet's set the scene. An oversized, outdoor daybed set amid a grove of trees. The view, depending on which daybed you choose, is either of a reflecting pond and nearby harbor or a sunrise pool surrounded by a beautiful deck made of Brazilian Ipe wood. And as you are sitting here, enjoying the view, your sumptuous oysters are delivered. It's all part of the new, luxurious, daybed dining experiences at The Modern in Honolulu.
For between $250 and $500 the hotel will deliver a three- to five-course "blind tasting menu" as you relax on your daybed -- a regular part of which is oysters. Daybed dining is available for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and no matter which meal you choose, it can involve oysters. "Most of the time it's going to be raw oysters, as a lot of food and culture here is Japanese, and nine times out of 10, that's raw food," explains Carl Anderson, the hotel's director of food and beverage. "But sometimes it involves a variation on an Oyster Rockefeller dish. And Hawaiian palates are not in tune to spicy as much, so we usually play on the fruit flavors, something sweeter, heavy into mango or pineapple." Oysters, mango, pineapple. Fabulous. So why is this experience so luxurious, and why did it make our oyster list? Anderson explained it best. "We are one of the top five hotels in Hawaii, and the word luxury is part of what we do," Anderson explains. "It's not the traditional luxury you would get with a Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton. It's more of a casual style of luxury, with a younger attitude ... and oysters, champagne, these are things that are quintessentially of a luxurious nature. High-class and high-caliber foods. They're very hard to get and very difficult to prepare well. And when you can prepare it well, like we do here, you know you have something special."