I love it when, immediately after sitting down for dinner at The Dutch, a guest (or better, “the host,” a dying breed) orders a Prince Platter from the raw bar, or just a bunch of oysters, even before ordering drinks. Properly served, oysters are shucked à la minute, god forbid opened all at once and put on a sheet tray in the walk in. The horror! Truly pro diners understand this situation, and by planning ahead, these guys have immediately let the staff and I know they deserve some special attention.
There’s no faster way to lose that respect than to next ask: “We’re going to have a bottle of red with our oysters, what do you suggest?”
Some of you might think this is a ridiculous question, and I applaud your good taste. It is enough of an epidemic, though, that I have to speak out. For some reason, to those of us in the oysters and accompanying inebriants business, it’s worse than wearing sunglasses inside or putting your feet on the banquette, but it’s happening twice a night or more! Somebody put ice in their Champagne and asked me if it bothered me; it didn’t really. Once I sell something to you it’s yours, and yet I am having nightmares in which a bottle of back-vintage Musigny is being annihilated by a small army of Wellfleets. Those little guys are some of the friendliest food-pairings in the universe — after swallowing a living thing whole it’s really nice to have a sip of just about anything. There is one category of products we have on offer, though, that will make them taste like tin foil someone excavated from the Fresh Kills landfill.
My drug of choice, as friends know, is Champagne. It’s a wonderful beverage at breakfast, but works all day — and hits its evening stride after your first oyster. It’s not just the fresh acidity, although that certainly helps, but also the aromatics, especially the toasty brioche-like notes that result from leaving the wine on its lees for an extended period of time, make it a sort of liquid oyster cracker. True Champagnes can be pricey by the glass, and if you don’t want to go long on a bottle, there are plenty of other appellations available on wine lists these days, and tons of quality from French Cremants, Italy’s Franciacorta and some American names, like Argyle, Schramsberg and Soter.
I get it, though, for whatever reason, some people can’t drink sparkling wine. I tend to think it’s from a bad association: one time, they were celebrating something, drank way too much, had a terrible hangover and associated it with the evening’s beverage selection. It’s true, many Champagnes have more residual sugar than other wines, but if sugar is a no go, then so is pretty much every cocktail of all time, not to mention dessert. Dip your toe in the water again, and dudes, don’t be afraid to ask for a regular wine glass. Flutes aren’t always a good look, and they’re pretty useless anyway.
Or not. Drink Muscadet, or try to find the region’s practically unknown variety Melon de Bourgogne, grown on this side of the Atlantic. Lieu Dit in Santa Barbara and Anne Hubatch in the Willamette Valley are making great examples, in small quantities. Any white wine that didn’t see a ton of new oak will work just fine though, and most people prefer to stay on the dry side. If you like your seafood spicy, though, Rieslings from across the sweetness spectrum can be lovely. Chablis, most of which is literally grown in millions-of-year-old sea shells, might be my number one, but take care in finding a producer you love, as yields can be high and mechanization can be the mean. Raveneau’s Montée de Tonnerre from ‘96 is a deathbed wine, but there are plenty of producers, like Patrick Piuze, Domaine Savary and Romaine Bouchard at Domaine de la Grande Chaume, turning out affordable expressions of a variety of the region’s terroirs.
I’m far from oenocentric, though, and if I have a rapport with the potential pairing offenders, I will raise the idea of a manly escape: beer. Although Andrew Carmellini and I favor the Nitro Milk Stout from Left Hand in Colorado that we have on draft (and love even more splitting it 50/50 with Champagne, in what as known as a Black Velvet), the prospect of dark creamy beer with raw shellfish can be a hard sell. In that case, I will reach for a big bottle of something acid-driven, like The Bruery’s Saison Rue. It has a concrete head and a spicy rye-malt base, giving it enough “big flavor” to stand in for Brunello.
I hate to say it, because I think vodka sodas are a total copout, but at least sticking with your bland cocktail is neutral. I’d rather enjoy a nice stirred gin Martini with more than a splash of vermouth (“wet”) and a twist. If you want something shaken order a Sidecar, Daiquiri or anything along the citrus driven lines without too many botanicals — even a Margarita. Some people swear by brown spirits with oysters, but for Old Fashioned drinkers, I might encourage them to try a nice Fino Sherry, like the Equipo Navazos Bota de Fino. Although the nuttiness of it might be off-putting to the uninitiated, it’s way better with uni than Bourbon.
It’s grilling month here, though, which inspires this bit of fine print: grilling oysters can completely change their behavior on your palate. Suddenly, once the oyster’s liqueur has been partially vaporized, which could just as easily be done in the broiler or fryer, it becomes meat like any other. With this recipe from the badass Chef de Cuisine at The Dutch, Jason Hua, you’ll be just as happy popping some Pinot Noir or Beaujolais as bubbles.
Otherwise, I will sleep a lot better if we all try to stop murdering great red wine and equally great oysters by enjoying them at the same time. Tell your friends.
Contributor Chad Walsh writes about wine and other beverages. He is also beverage manager for The Dutch in NYC.