Montreal Oyster Throwdown: Le Club Chasse et Peche, Joe Beef, L'Orignal, Maestro SVP
Criteria: Freshness, Variety, Price, Atmosphere, Accompaniments, Drink Pairing, and "Because Sometimes All You Need is a Good Shuck". A grand total of 13 different kinds of oysters, 4 glasses of wine, 3 days, and 1 very, very long night of oyster crawling later, here are the results...
Humour me for a second. I'm a little obsessed with sustainable seafood, to the point where I won't take a free sample of Atlantic salmon at Jean-Talon market, I'm freaked out by BC's "naturally raised" Creative Salmon, and I get in fights with fishmongers over the origins of the halibut they're trying to sell me. So to help us all navigate the confusing world of sustainable fish and seafood, I'm going to do a series of throwdowns about it. As it turns out, oysters both are pretty sustainable and, compared to a lot of other seafood, surprisingly affordable.
Fish are going through tough times, "just like oysters did about 150 years ago", says Daniel Notkin of L'Original, but oysters made it through. Well, some kinds did, and now oysters are generally considered to be sustainable. They actually clean the water where they live, but you want to be careful about whether they're farmed or wild, what's in the water, and especially whether or not they're fresh.
Why This is a Horrible Throwdown: You should also know that as much as this is a throwdown, it's probably the most docile one ever. Think instead of "throwing down the gauntlet", these restaurants are all getting together in a ring and gently placing a pillow down each to create a sharing circle so they can chat over tea.
I'm not really pitting these restaurants against each other, since when it comes to oysters in Montreal there's a fair bit of inter-restaurant support and amity. Places in the city such as Joe Beef, Liverpool House, L'Orignal, Lucille's Oyster Dive, and Garde-Manger all shuck high quality product and work with each other very closely to spread the oyster-related good word. Think of them as shellfish preachers, the kind that sells something better than encyclopedias. Joe Beef, for example imports Carr's Family oysters directly from the cultivator and sometimes supplies these other restaurants, so Carr's Family oysters could end up at Lucille's Oyster Dive thanks to Joe Beef, and along the same vein Chopper's Choice oysters from Massachusetts could end up at Joe Beef thanks to Daniel Notkin from L'Orignal, etc. Chef David McMillan of Joe Beef stresses that, like him, representatives from these restaurants are the ones going out and importing their own oysters, which is a sure way to guarantee freshness and quality. If you're working with a distributor there are a few more stops along the way to the store shelf and there's no guarantee you should want to eat those oysters. Midland Transport ships oysters to Joe Beef and their tea party restaurants, leaving PEI on Friday, arriving in Montreal on Sunday, and getting oysters to the restaurants Monday. McMillan says Joe Beef will serve oysters for an entire week but it's not like fish where the quality degrades substantially each day, so whether you eat oysters there on Tuesday or Friday is not a big deal. I wouldn't eat sashimi that had been sitting in a crisper for a week, but I would definitely eat an oyster that had been placed between two damp towels in that same crisper, as long as the fish wasn't in there too.
Money: But then there's the money issue. Oysters aren't cheap, right? Actually, they're not bad, despite how chichi they seem. Even at the heavy-weight Montreal restaurants that I'm "gently placing"-down, the average oyster cost just $3.50. So you can have a light meal or an appetizer of oysters and a glass of wine to start your night (special occasion or not) at one of these high-quality establishments for about $30. Yeah, it's more expensive than a pizza or nachos, but it won't cost you the $100 a head that you'd expect to spend on a four-course dinner at these restaurants (though I do encourage a good splurge sometimes) and your guest, friend, or significant/insignificant/slightly less significant other will probably be pretty impressed.
I'm getting there, I swear, but there are a few things you need to know about oysters if you're just starting out:
1. There's nothing fancy about an oyster, really. It's a piece of flesh sitting in a shell that gets cracked open and slurped into your mouth. It's packed with protein, low in calories, and high in aphodisiac zinc, you know, for the entire "others" category, independent of their significance...
2. There's no "right" way to eat an oyster. If you've never had one before, try your first plain. Just pick up the oyster half-shell that's been opened and loosened from the shell (shucked) for you, and pour the oyster juice (called "liquor"...but it's not alcoholic) into your mouth. Let your tongue absorb the salty flavour before biting into the meat of the oyster. Please chew your first one since the sweetness of the meat generally increases the more your chew, and it might take some chewing to overpower the saltiness.
3. Words to describe oyster flavours include fruit (ex: melon), floral, vegetables (ex: cucumber), mineral, nutty, metallic, or mushroom flavours in addition to the briny hit of sodium you get upon first slurping since they come from saltwater. It all depends on the climate and the water - how warm it is, where it is, what's in it - and if the oysters are farmed or wild. Since farmed oysters are cultivated on trays at different depths in the water, the depth also makes a difference. Pacific oysters grow much faster than Atlantic oysters, McMillan explains, and PEI oysters have tougher lives in the Atlantic ocean than say BC oysters over in the Pacific. Atlantic and Pacific are also two different kinds of oysters altogether (Atlantic: "Cassostrea virginica", Pacific: "Cassostrea Gigas") so you can expect different qualities.
4. "Where oysters come from, lemons don't grow there," says John Bil, oyster shucker extraordinaire, but some people like to squirt a bit of lemon, horseradish, or mignonette (traditionally a mix of red wine vinegar and shallots) directly into the half shell of oyster, and as I said, there's no "wrong way"...there are just less good ways. Purists either don't like these accompaniments at all, or like them more as palette-cleansers, to remove the taste of the last oyster from your mouth before the next one. Basically that's so you can taste the next one better by contrast. My oyster crawl partner made fun of me for biting into pieces of lemon after having an oyster and then taking a sip of wine, kind of like a backwards shot of tequila, but in very slow-motion since I would never shoot an oyster. The lemon made the wine taste sweet by comparison. Then I'd have to have more lemon before the next oyster to get the sweet wine taste out of my mouth. All this meant was that I could take a dry wine and turn it into a dessert wine by sucking a little lemon first, so two wines for the price of one and a full course meal: appetizer (bread), main (oysters and wine), sides (lemon and mignonette) and dessert (wine). Almost.
I also would caution you about the lemon and horseradish since too much can overpower the flavour of the oysters, and probably they were traditionally only used because they're antimicrobial. Oysters are most often eaten raw, but you shouldn't really need any of these things if the oysters are fresh. It's the same way wasabi makes it less dangerous to eat raw fish in sushi, but still, better safe than sorry. And wasabi, like horseradish, is an acquired taste. Unfortunately, also like horseradish, you can add too much wasabi and wreck the food.
5. Traditionally you think champagne and oysters, but that's half a practical idea and half just an elitist thing. The bubbles are refreshing and shouldn't mask the flavour of the oyster, but champagne is unnecessary and also generally pricey. A dry sparkling wine (a good prosecco or cava), or even a dry white wine (a chablis or a sancerre - though sancerre is a bit pricey too) works perfectly. Don't drink? That's fine, since the reason sancerre works is generally because of its mineral qualities, so I say mineral water or sparkling water is okay too...and cheaper...though maybe not as fun.
6. About taste and freshness: Taste is completely subjective - you'll like what you like - but freshness is something you really want to be careful with; an oyster shouldn't look dry, and you actually want to see some green algae outside. It's a living thing until it gets shucked, after all, so something growing on it is generally good.
7. "A bad shuck": Well, this can best be described as kind of rough since there's no liquid inside, and 'KY' doesn't have a solution for that. It's also bad when the oyster meat gets gnarled by the knife and you lose the flavour of the oyster. That one's not really meant to be a metaphor...but think as you will.
Okay, I'm done.
Variety: Maestro SVP
There were 12 kinds of oysters on the menu here. Lucky Limes, MalpÃ¨ques, Peasant and Raspberry Points from PEI; Beausoleil and Chippigane from New Brunswick; Chef's Creek and Marina Gold from British Columbia; Merigomish from Nova Scotia; Glidden's from Maine, Mystic Rivers from Connecticutt; and Galway Flat's from Ireland. If you're looking to sample different kinds, this is where you want to come. Just make you ask which are the freshest, though (when they came in and travel time - ask to see the box to check the packing date if you're really skeptical), since oysters have a relatively short shelf life and there's no way they can keep all of these stocked at their peak. So variety is maybe not what you should be after in the first place, but it is the spice of life, so it's a tough call...and it's your digestive tract.
Price: Maestro SVP and Le Club Chasse et Peche
You can get 12 Beausoleil oysters at Maestro SVP for $13 any day from 5pm to 7pm, and all evening on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. That's hands-down the best oyster deal in town and it means that the Beausoleils at Maestro SVP are probably among their fresher offerings because of the higher turnover. That doesn't necessarily mean that the Beausoleils are the best bang for your buck, but Beausoleils ($2.00 a piece) are actually really good right now. At any given time of the year they could be good or less good since the water environment is constantly changing. Maestro SVP also happened to have the most expensive oysters, with the Irish Galway Flats checking in at $8 a piece and the rest averaging around $5 an oyster, so choose wisely. Joe Beef and Liverpool House will have the Galways later in the year too, which probably means so will a few other places in town with whom they'll share a cup of tea...
As for the rest of the oysters at Maestro SVP, I liked the Gliddens from Maine, but at $6.00 a pop you'd be better off having the $3.50 Colville Bays at L'Orignal or the $3.50 Carr's Family oysters at Joe Beef.
Then there's Le Club Chasse et PÃªche where you get 6 oysters for $20, which noses in just slightly under $3.50 an oyster. Though there's only one kind of oyster offered (Caraquets from New Brunswick when we were there) they're served them three ways:
Best Accompaniments or Presentation: Le Club Chasse et PÃªche
Here you order "oysters with personality", says the menu. That evening "personality" meant you could mix and match your half dozen oysters from the following options:
1. Mignonette (cute?)
2. In matsutake mushroom broth (slightly bitter?)
3. With basil oil and champagne foam (Um...I wish I knew what a basil-y and champagne-y personality was, but I would never argue with the Chefs of Le Club Chasse et Peche)
You can also get them au naturel, and there was, of course, lemon (though I don't see any lemon trees 'round these parts...), but this was the best mignonette (a)round. Well, the first one was. They brought out a new dish of mignonette for the second half dozen oysters we ordered, and that time the vinegar was more pungent - a fresh batch. I preferred the muted crunch of the shallots and the mildness of the acid the first time and hope that mellowness was intentional, but it's just a matter of personal preference.
The matsutake broth was the most unique option. It wasn't a hot broth, since that would cook the oyster, but the slightly bitter, warm mushroom flavour complemented the caraquets.
The basil oil was way too overpowering, but if you want to taste basil and not oyster, this one's for you; say, if you're on a date and you figure it's a good idea to order oysters to seem posh but you actually hate the idea of pouring a barely dead thing into your mouth...but you really like pesto, then go with this kind. The champagne foam gets lost in the mouthful, but champagne goes with oysters, so it at least didn't get in the way of any of the oyster flavour.
Runner-Up: Horseradish at Joe Beef
Yeah, I know it's weird I'm singing the praises of horseradish, but it was better here. It was freshly grated in front of us, sure, but I think it was just that the horseradish itself was a little sweeter, a little richer. Can horseradish be richer? Maybe it can with glass 3 of wine...
If I was going out for an evening and wanted to find an unpretentious restaurant for oysters, this is where I'd come. The place isn't cramped like Joe Beef, the whole room seems warm and inviting, sitting at the bar felt like being around a big group of friends I'd just met, and service was warm and so very much not "Old Port stuffiness".
But I'll be honest, Le Club Chasse et Peche completely surprised me. Again, we were treated with the utmost respect. I mean, I don't look like a person who knows the first thing about oysters, but I felt comfortable enough to ask questions, and by the end of the night my oyster crawl partner and I were speaking with the Maitre D', the sommelier, and a server about oysters, fennel, and dry white wine...not together necessarily, although...
Then there was Melissa at Maestro SVP who walked us through the entire menu and described each oyster without sounding the least bit pompous about it. She was honest, clear, and respectful, and her own curiosity and education about the oysters shone through. This isn't really fair to Joe Beef, though, since they were packed the night we went and it really wasn't the time to make friends with the obviously friendly, though busy, oyster shucker/bartender. Liverpool House next door is also owned by McMillan and there's more space and a relaxed atmosphere that seemed much more appealing. You might not get the furry buffalo or the Newfoundland fishing boat door in the bathroom, but next time I'll reserve a highly-coveted seat at the Liverpool House bar instead and hope for some other decorative whimsy in the washroom.
Drink Pairing: Le Club Chasse et PÃªche
While I prefer the sancerre you can get at Maestro SVP, $15 is a lot to pay for a glass of wine. The only other decent option there is a glass of prosecco that goes for $11.25 and tastes like it should cost you no more than $5. Alcohol is where these restaurants are going to suck your bank account, so you need to be choosy. Prices were around the $11 per glass mark everywhere but the best deal was actually at Le Club Chasse et Peche where a $9 Muscadet was plenty dry enough to stay out of the way of the oysters. I wouldn't want to drink it on its own, but it's funny that myself and other foolish people like me will pay $9 to have a drink stay out of the way.
I personally think the Chablis they offered was too sweet for the bivalves, but
1) that's just me, and
2) they probably want you to go with the $25 glass of champagne, so it kind of makes sense. And really, it's considerate of them to have the less expensive option.
Because Sometimes All you Need is a Good Shuck: Joe Beef (Liverpool House) and L'Orignal
This is an oyster video. Get your mind out of the gutter.
Really you want to have your oysters shucked by John Bil but nowadays you can only catch him working at Liverpool House when he's in town. Bil now has his own place in Darnley, PEI with mussel-grower Stephen Stewart but fortunately for Montreal the restaurant is closed for the rest of the season, so word is that for the next two weeks, Bil can be found at Liverpool House.
Why should you go out of your way for him? Bil is a three-time Canadian oyster shucking champion whose record is 18 perfectly shucked oysters in 1 minute and 26 seconds. Still, Daniel Notkin of L'Orignal is a very good shucker, and I've been told that Garde-Manger and Lucille's Oyster Dive have their own employees who are skilled with a shucking knife. I have it on good authority that McMillan and Ryan Gray at Joe Beef are no shucking novices either, but would they get in a shucking throwdown or just a sharing circle with Bil?
Speed is important, but so is quality (remember the gnarled oyster imagery in point 7 above). At Maestro SVP we waited forever for our oysters. We did order quite a variety, and we were entertained during our wait, but they weren't even shucked in front of us, and that's really part of the appeal. Le Club Chasse et PÃªche's oysters came quickly but they had extra preparations to make with the basil oil and foam business so they also weren't shucked in front of us. So Liverpool House if Bil is spotlighting, and L'Orignal when Notkin is working.
You've never tried a...?
My personal favourite oyster was a British Columbia oyster called Marina Gold from Maestro SVP. That doesn't mean Maestro SVP is the best place for oysters, just that it was the only place serving this one kind of oyster that I loved. Just one cost $4.50, but it tasted like risotto - a creaminess that's characteristic of Pacific oysters. McMillan says they'll be getting them at Joe Beef in January, February and March, once they can't get the Atlantic ones anymore. They're not the kind of oyster you maybe want to eat 6 of, but they're a real treat. As a lactose-intolerant person I dream about cheesecake and mousse, but now I'll dream about the creamy tang of a Marina Gold. Ridiculous, I know, but they won't make me sick...unless I get a fourth glass of wine and start thinking about that horrible episode of Mad Men. There's a reason I stopped watching that show.
My second favourite oyster was at Joe Beef. That night they had Carr's Family Oysters which come from Stanley Bridge, PEI where Carr's Wharfside Market, oyster bar, and seafood restaurant sell about 500 raw oysters and ship about 1000 daily. These oysters were the perfect, simple, sweet, salty balance with a full meaty flavour. They didn't have the shock value of the Pacific oysters since they taste like what you probably think an oyster should taste like (all the Atlantic oysters are actually the same species, but take on different flavour characteristics based on where they're cultivated - PEI, NB, NS, Maine, bays, inlets, etc.). The half dozen we got was a mix of bigger ones and smaller ones, though, so you've just got to hope your order gives you the big ones.
Overall Winner: Maybe this is a cop-out, but I wouldn't turn down an offer to go to any of these places, and neither would I turn down an offer from a good shucker/ami(e) who invited me over to try a whole variety from Poissonerie La Mer on Papineau, or Aqua Mare or Poissonerie Atkins/Les Delices de la Mer in Jean-Talon market. But I would check the packing date on the box and want to know where the oysters are coming from. Still, you're not going to find the Pacific creamy oysters I loved at J-T, at least until later in the year, and you're definitely never going to find the Carr's Family oysters there. So I'd go to Le Club Chasse et Peche when I want to sit in a crazy fancy restaurant and feel as though I can afford it, get great service and learn about oyster personalities, I'd go to Joe Beef when it's less busy and I want to feel like I'm in one of the city's hippest places (but like I said, next time Liverpool House, especially if Bil is shucking), and I'd go to L'Orignal to feel welcome, at home, and in good company at the bar with amazing and well-priced oysters.
Wow, we made it. Now, completely bombarded with information you can stop being intimidated by oysters and go explore some of the city's most exciting restaurants. Ask questions, enjoy the experience, and most importantly, find yourself a good shuck.
For more info on how to buy, store, and shuck oysters at home, check out Bil's advice here.
Le Club Chasse et Peche
423 rue St-Claude
Hours: Tues-Sat 6pm-10:30pm
Expect to Pay: $20 for 6 oysters plus tax, tip, and a glass of wine
2491 Notre-Dame West
Hours: Tues-Sat 6:30pm-close
Expect to Pay: $21 for 6 oysters plus tax, tip, and a glass of wine
Hours: Daily from 6pm
Expect to Pay: $21 for 6 oysters plus tax, tip, and a glass of wine
3615 boul. St Laurent (at Prince Arthur)
Hours: Mon-Wed, Sun 4pm-10pm; Thurs-Fri 4pm-11pm; Sat 4pm-midnight
Expect to Pay: From $13 for 12 Beausoleils to $27 for a mix of 6, plus tax, tip, and a glass of wine