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March 24, 2008

Maine Oysters – The Absolute BEST!

I love oysters. I’ve gorged on them at seafood restaurants on the both our east and west coasts. I’ve been fortunate to have experienced oysters from Prince Edward Island, Washington (the state), Oregon, Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, various B.C. locations, and innumerable others I can’t recall this moment.

Up until recently, my most favorite "oyster experience" was attending an Oyster Night special event at Chef/Food Author Chris Schlesinger’s wonderful East Coast Grill & Raw Bar in Cambridge, MA. Chris invited two local oyster farmers to bring in car loads of oysters they gathered that very day. He also brought in several wonderful wines specifically selected to enhance the experience of raw oyster gorging. And they did.

Those of us who attended this event were invited to consume as many oysters as we chose from either or both oyster harvester’s supply. Each harvester had their own table, and had a resident shucker in tow. The shuckers worked in an unofficial speed-shucking competition. They attempted to keep up with demand while those of us in attendance waited patiently in one of the lines to get our plates refilled with more of these shellfish gems. Truly just-in-time oysters. How could it get better than that?

Well, both the wonderful mignonette sauce Chris had created (my first experience with a mignonette, which promptly ended my long term association with cocktail sauce) and the wine selection certainly enhanced the experience. AND those attending were given the unforgettable experience of at full two-hour open oyster and wine bar. An oyster lover’s dream. Nirvana. But that’s not all!

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After the two-hour open bar window, we all sat down for dinner. True. There was a three-course meal, consisting of — you guessed it — oyster recipes. These were all cooked meals and were the proper ending to the raw oyster and wine extravaganza. I thought I’d never have such a wonderful oyster experience again in this lifetime, and I probably am right about that. At least for the sheer quantity of the experience.

But then I had my first encounter with oysters from Maine. I can
honestly say that they have been the absolute best in my rather
extensive dining experience with these wonderful shellfish. And several
of those "best of" experiences have been this past year (2007).

Prior to these discoveries, my impression of Maine Oysters had been
established by a quick stop at J’s Oyster Bar in Portland. My
impression was that they were good, but not special. I later discovered
that their oysters were "From Away" (a favorite Maine phrase for
anything not from Maine, and often not from a specific town, region, or
island in Maine), and not Maine oysters at all. They turned out to be
from Maryland. And I thought I was eating local oysters, right on the
Portland Wharf area. Foolish me. My assumption made an *** out of me,
as the saying goes.

And then I had my first true and memorable Maine oyster experience. It was at Chef/Owner Sam Hayward’s Fore Street
restaurant in Portland, where I experienced some wonderful local
oysters from Damariscotta. Crisp, clean, and very nice. And oh so
local. But Chef Sam Hayward is known for his consistent support of all
things local, as his year-round menus reflect. A memorable and local
dining experience is to be had at Fore Street restaurant.

Next were the truly outstanding oysters from Cushing, as served by Chef Bryan Dame with a mignonette sauce at The Edge
restaurant in Lincolnville. This remains among my all-time favorite
oyster experiences. Order that with Chef Dame’s wonderful Brick Oven
Salt Roasted Lobster entree for a complete blow-your-mind Maine seafood
dining experience. (Note: Chef Dame has been featured, with his
recipes, in both the Summer 2006 and 2007 Number 3 issues of our magazine.) Chef Dame is champion of local food resources.

Very close to that experience, were the wonderful oysters I enjoyed this past fall season at Marcel’s
Restaurant at the Samoset Resort in Rockport. Paired with a Steak Diane
entree, I was in heaven throughout the evening’s dining experience.

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And among my top oyster experiences were certainly the Pemaquid oysters served with cucumber mignonette by Chef Brian Hill of Francine Bistro
in Camden. I paired that with an entree of Skillet Roasted (local)
chicken to complete a memorable meal. Brian Hill is another champion of
local foods, as his wonderful seasonal menus reflect. (Note: Chef Brian
Hill was featured, with his recipes, in the 2007 Number 3 issue of our magazine.)

In summary, if you have a chance to sample Maine oysters at one of
our wonderful world-class Maine restaurants, I believe you will have a
best-of-the-best oyster experience. Your favorite will emerge from your
personal taste. Mine lends itself to clean and briny, a wonderful
combination to bathe in a mignonette sauce. Whichever type you get to
sample, I guarantee you will have a memorable experience.

Jim Bazin is the creative director of Maine Food & Lifestyle magazine.

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