Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Oysters on parade for Mardi Gras

Though no longer cheap and plentiful, bivalves can shore up a party

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Washington Platform serves oysters more than 30 ways during its annual festival, including raw on the half shell.Washington Platform Saloon & Restaurant celebrates its 18th annual Oyster Festival with more than three dozen oyster dishes.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/BRANDI STAFFORD

You can have your sausage gumbo, blackened redfish, shrimp Creole and crawfish etouffee. But like those lucky folks in New Orleans, Cincinnati revelers should celebrate Mardi Gras season by slurping a dozen or so raw oysters.

Our history with the briny bivalve goes back to the early 19th century, when tons of oysters were rushed by stagecoach from Baltimore to Cincinnati to satisfy the cravings of saloon and restaurant patrons. Not that it was "Oysteropolis" or anything. But oysters were plentiful and cheap.

During the late 1800s, Cincinnati's Glancairn Hotel offered raw oysters for 15 cents a dozen. For its 1875 Christmas dinner, the Gibson House served oysters more than a dozen ways, including pickled and cooked in champagne.

There has been a sea change in the oyster world since downtown's venerable Central Oyster House closed in 1974. Oysters are no longer plentiful and cheap. Today, Greater Cincinnatians have a bigger appetite for oyster crackers (with chili, usually) than oyster stew.


• At the raw bar at the Washington Platform, downtown and Newport, you'll find several kinds of oysters on the half shell, served simply with lemon, saltines and cocktail sauce ($7.95 a half dozen).

• Mitchell's Fish Market at Newport on the Levee has a selection of raw oysters from Long Island, Prince Edward Island, Chesapeake Bay and the Olympic Peninsula. Sample one or all of them and compare. ($7.50 or $14.95.)


• South Beach Grill in Covington serves an appetizer called Oysters Rock! - fried oysters served on spinach with Asian pear and bacon ($7.25).

• J's Seafood House in Hyde Park does oysters baked under spinach with goat cheese and sake ($9.95).

• The Two-fer at Brown Dog in Blue Ash at once: fried oysters paired with crab cakes ($11).

Polly Campbell

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"There seems to be two camps here," says Jon Diebold, owner of Washington Platform Saloon & Restaurant downtown at 1000 Elm St., which specializes in oysters. "There are people who swear by oysters and people who just refuse to like them. No one in-between."

Still, Diebold says oysters have been good to him since he opened in 1986. So good, he opened Washington Platform Oyster House in Newport in December.

Next week's Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) offers the opportunity for us to connect with our delicious past. You can have oysters fried, broiled, steamed, stewed or raw. Open wide and let the oysters roll in.

Oyster advisory

When it comes to buying fresh oysters, many people wonder about the "R" month rule, which says you shouldn't eat oysters during months that don't have an "R"- May, June, July and August. The consensus from experts is oysters are safe to eat during these months, but not usually as flavorful because they spawn in the summer.

If you buy oysters in the shell, make sure they are alive - the shells should remain tightly closed. Buy oysters in the shell if you plan to serve them raw on the half-shell, or baked or grilled in their shell. Since shucking requires effort and skill, you should ask your fish monger to shell the oysters and give you the best looking shells for presentation.

Otherwise, if you're planning to make stew or fry oysters, it's wiser to buy the oysters shucked in a jar, says Kevin Smith, owner of Bounty Seafood II in Anderson Township.

In shell or out, keep oysters as cold as possible before you serve or cook them. Store them on a bed of ice in the refrigerator if possible.

Shellfish risk report

Although many people enjoy eating raw oysters and other shellfish, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control advise against it because of possible viral or bacterial contamination.

People with pre-existing liver disease or compromised immune systems are at higher risk for becoming sick after eating raw shellfish.


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