With so much coastline and so many eateries boasting oysters, Australia, we imagined, would more than sate one of life’s primordial, palatable, prehistoric pleasures. The truth, we discovered over 3 weeks, would prove, well, complicated.
There was the nice restaurant on the Sunshine Coast; the hip supper joint in the tiny town of Eden; the seaside fish diner on Tasmania’s wharf edge in Hobart; another seaside stop for lunch en route to Sydney Airport, and even a trendy spoon just a 2-minute stroll from Melbourne’s fab fish hall in Queen Victoria Market, all sharing the same best practice which was anything but best for these gems of the sea: serving oysters that were not shucked at the time of ordering and served rinsed of their flavorful natural juice.
The filtered seawater oysters live in is a gorgeous liquor to be savored as the shell hits the lips and the meat makes it beyond the taste buds. It should be clear and not cloudy. It is why smothering oysters with cocktail sauce, horseradish, Tabasco or any other condiments runs counter to our deep appreciation of these magnificent mollusks. A drizzle of lemon, lime or mignonette? Just a drop, if you must. But give your taste buds a thrill and try a naked oyster first.
“Turning” the oyster, as this rinsing practice is called, not only washes away the natural flavor. It kills the oyster (news alert: that just-shucked oyster is still alive). We finally asked the lovely gal behind the counter at the seaside spot outside of Sydney what gives. Why are the oysters shucked well before a client can order them? For health and safety, she replied.
As enthusiastic oyster consumers on our travels, we didn’t buy her response—or the oysters. We stuck to the fresh prawns under the glass. The conundrum, however, sent me down a rabbit hole of research and, finally, a report from an Australian concern dedicated to advancing farming practices. Apparently, turning is longstanding in this land, yet one the report strongly urged fellow Aussies to stop doing for the benefit of the industry, from oyster farming to dining establishments.
The report’s authors are not alone in their thinking. We managed to find freshly shucked oysters in all their lip-smacking juices at a few spots throughout this stunning country. Yet, even among these oyster-loving finds, none ranked like our experience the final eve of our holiday like that of Fish Butchery.
We came upon this narrow space on Oxford Street by accident, having a dinner reservation at the fashionable restaurant next door called The Paddington, named after this neighborhood in Sydney. Fish Butchery is like a chic shop for seafood: a big glass box atop a solid marble block base showcases a dozen-plus species; shelves along the exposed brick walls are lined with beautifully packaged accouterments. Three tall, dramatically-lit and chrome-framed refrigerators artfully showcase the contents, including one seen from outside the storefront, a couple of handfuls of reddish fish chunks bound and suspended from hooks like hunks of jamon, dry-aging.
Josh Niland, revered as one of Australia’s top chefs and owner of another of Oxford Street’s star attraction restaurants, Saint Peters, is the founder, along with his wife Julie Niland, of Fish Butchery. As with their critically acclaimed restaurant, the young couple’s goal with their fresh-fish storefront is educating consumers about little-known species, seasonal and sustainable sourcing, handling (such as keeping the oyster liquor!) and even vast anatomical delights of, say, the liver or even eyeballs, both which are available to home cooks at the shop.
Thankfully, this boutique, which opened April 2018, is not only for cooks to pick up their featured ingredients. A flat screen listed the day’s brief menu. One of the fridges contained oysters, each of the 4 on offer on its own shelf, hidden under burlap. We ordered 6 of each, and an attractive brunette woman (they were not all women at work there, but they were all attractive), got to work shucking at the drawn-out marble counter. We ordered a couple of potato scallops, a thick wheel fried to perfection. Mission accomplished! Andy and I had found an oyster experience worthy of our holiday here.
We were also terribly conscious of the fact that his sister Nicki and our daughter Nina were both seated next door at our coveted table inside a heaving Saturday service at The Paddington. We reached them before Nicki emptied her first glass of Chardonnay. Abuzz about the pearl next door, we ordered cocktails and proceeded to order dinner.
Oh, and dinner at The Paddington was superb.