Why Do So Many Restaurants Screw Up Oysters?

Last night, I wound up at Rembrandt’s for dinner with a friend. The longtime Fairmount tavern recently brought in chef Nick Cassidy from Buddakan to spruce things up a bit, and I was curious to see whether change was a good thing for Rembrandt’s.

We sat at the bar and ordered a pickle plate and a half-dozen oysters from somewhere on idyllic Prince Edward Island. I’ll rant about the pickle plate some other time, but suffice to say that they somehow managed to screw up the pickles in a big way, and I anticipate some serious anti-pickle-trend sentiment to spring up in 2013, if it hasn’t already.

But in the hierarchy of restaurant fails, the problematic pickles were no match for the oysters. The bi-valves arrived battered and bruised as if a hyperactive six-year-old was left alone in the kitchen to attend to the shucking. They were hacked into oblivion and little pieces of gray oyster matter dotted the inside of the shell. More autopsy than gastronomy.

Still, I decided to make a go of it. Unfortunately, not only were the oysters mangled piles of oyster mush, they were also approaching room temperature. I don’t know about you, but I like my oysters cold. We each managed to get one down before giving the bartender a heads up. A manager stopped by, apologized, and removed them from our bill. (In fairness to the kitchen, the meal steadily improved from that point on.)

But Rembrandt’s is, of course, not the first restaurant to shoddily shuck my oysters.

When Johnny Brenda’s first offered oyster service, I went a couple of times and was annoyed to find that the shucker didn’t sever the adductor muscle on a single oyster. So instead of being able to gently slurp the meat from shell, I had to work them over with a fork. Johnny Brenda’s co-owner Paul Kimport seemed embarrassed when I mentioned this to him a few weeks later. Apparently, the shucker just didn’t know that he was supposed to separate the oyster from the shell. Probably a vegan.

After the new Oyster House debuted on Sansom Street in 2009, I paid them a visit only to find more than a dozen shell fragments in my oysters. I pointed out the pile of shell pieces on my napkin to my server, and the problem was corrected on subsequent visits. These days, the Oyster House is easily the best place in Philly for oysters.

And on one visit to the Prime Rib, where they don’t like me very much, my old, dry, pre-shucked oysters floated in a shell full of liquid. If you ever see an oyster shell literally filled to the brim with juice, you know that the restaurant is adding water to try and refresh the oysters. Take a pass.

So what is so hard about properly serving oysters? “Nothing!” says Tony Blanche, who has owned the 51-year-old Clam Tavern in Clifton Heights since 2005. (Craig LaBan raved about Blanche’s baked clams in yesterday’s Inquirer.) Blanche is an expert shucker and also happened to be my guest at Rembrandt’s.

“It’s not hard,” he insists. “People just hack at the oyster. They rip the shell off, and the oyster winds up in pieces. You need to be delicate, leaving the flesh whole. But most people just don’t take the time to open them the right way. They rush it. Or, they’ve never been taught the right way.”

The next time you get a plate of improperly shucked oysters, send them back. You deserve better.

Foobooz Six Pack: Dollar Oysters [Foobooz]