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 But there are those in the culinary world who would argue that oysters no longer represent such luxury now that they're so widely available.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.
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.
"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.
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."