It used to be that oysters, as the old adage goes, were best enjoyed during the cooler months containing an "r."
Not so since the advent of refrigeration, says Adam Smith, who has spent many a summer weekend doling out the live morsels to partygoers from his mobile shucking service CLE on the Half Shell (clehalfshell.com). When he started in 2013, Smith set out to recapture the social elements of shucking by gathering spectators and sharing stories about where food comes from.
"If someone's shucking it for you, you're eating a part of the sea and there's no middle man," says Smith. "It's between you and the oyster. We get to shine a light on this delicacy."
Smith has been serving up oysters to first-timers more and more often, an experience that chefs throughout the city echo. While they might be seeing an uptick in popularity in recent years, oyster bars in this country flourished in the 1800s until the demand eventually depleted a significant amount of the population.
"Over the past year or so, oysters have really come into their own," says Blue Point Grille (700 West St. Clair Ave., 216-875-7827, bluepointgrille.com) executive chef Marc Standen. "I think with all the television shows about food, people are getting a little more experimental."
Blue Point estimates that it shucks more than 75,000 oysters a year. The restaurant takes its name from the classic variety, but Standen also is drawn to West Coast varieties like Kusshi, citing their delicate melon and cucumber flavors. "Like wines, they pick up the flavors of the seas and the bays where they're grown," says Standen.
Rusty Anchor (1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250, rustyanchorcle.com), the eatery at Music Box Supper Club on the west bank of the Flats, also has witnessed a rise in adventurous diners. Along with the traditional Blue Point, Anchor keeps on hand options like the Irish Point and meaty Naughty Pilgrims, both personal favorites of executive chef Dennis Devies. This summer, their outdoor bar sold more than 1,000 oysters a week.
"There's no longer that fear of eating a raw oyster," says Devies.
Restaurateur Zack Bruell has long observed that fondness for raw oysters at his restaurants that serve them, namely Parallax and L'Albatros. That sense of adventure led him to open his new Flats East Bank eatery Alley Cat Oyster Bar (1056 Old River Rd., 216-574-9999, alleycatoysterbar.com).
"Alley Cat is directed more toward the mainstream diner, and what's crazy to me is that the mainstream diner is eating oysters," says Bruell. "People who had never eaten oysters before are trying them."
The entry-level slurper can still be a bit squeamish, Bruell admits, so Alley Cat eases the palate with cocktail sauce, horseradish and tart mignonette. The seasoned oyster aficionado? "They don't want anything on it," he says.
Step outside the confines of the Western hemisphere and into a Parisian cafe and you're bound to see oysters popping up on menus. That was the idea when Shane and Britt-Marie Culey opened Coquette Patisserie (11607 Euclid Ave., 216-331-2841, coquettepatisserie.com), the French-themed bakery and wine bar where oysters are served alongside grower Champagne. Shane's go-to pour is Pehu-Simonet.
"Green apple and citrus notes in the Champagne intrinsically pair well with oysters, but there is also some nice minerality in the Pehu-Simonet that brings out that dimension of the oyster as well," he says.
Edwins (13101 Shaker Sq., 216-921-3333, edwinsrestaurant.org) puts a spin on the classic raw bar with its alfresco oyster bar. A component of the outdoor patio in the heart of Shaker Square, the out-of-context setting draws the attention of casual shoppers just passing on the street.
"Someone will come by and say they love oysters but they've never seen one shucked or ever shucked one before," says general manager Jordan Levine. "We've taught a lot of guests and they get a kick out of just being able to do it themselves."