Go Ahead and Shoot
The consumption of oysters emerged as a status symbol as far back as the late 19th century, when California gold miners, fresh off a successful find, would saddle up to the bar and order a dozen of the bivalves—a sign that all their mud slogging and beard growing had paid off. Nevertheless, whether they were blue-collar miners or white-collar businesspeople, many Americans soon adopted the belief that the oyster, albeit luxurious and a symbol of success, could use a little gussying up. Hence the oyster shooter was born.
Served in a shot glass, the concoction consisted of an oyster, a splash of alcohol, a sprinkling of horseradish, a dash of hot sauce and lemon juice, and a pinch of pepper. It became a popular staple for the mornings after a raucous night out on the town. Once gourmands acquired the taste for the delicate terroir of Kumamoto (and other varieties), however, they quickly wrote off the shooter as a brash consumption; it was, they deemed, the culinary equivalent of moving the couch to hide a stain on the rug.
Much has changed in the years since the oyster shooter first fell from grace. Today, some progressive food minds are breathing new life into the classic, but not all modern examples adhere to the classic blueprint. One visit to the Wayland in Manhattan provides ample proof of that. “An oyster in the bottom of a glass—that’s repulsive to me,” says Jason Mendenhall, the cocktail bar’s owner. “Oysters have such a delicate flavor based on what time of year we harvest, the temperature, size. You don’t want to blow them out.”
Instead, Mendenhall serves a deconstructed shooter, its elements designed to be enjoyed in succession. It starts with Blue Island oyster served in a cast-iron bowl full of crushed ice, and it’s accompanied by a sidecar of mezcal infused with pickled shallots. “With mezcal being so deep and smoky, it’s like a really interesting mignonette,” Mendenhall explains. “Vodka is fine and all, but I can walk into any bar and get that.”
For those who would rather avoid a bar altogether and prefer their oyster shooters chez soi, Mendenhall believes there is just one cardinal rule to follow: “The oyster is everything. If you have a crappy oyster, you’re going to have a crappy time.”
The creative minds behind Chaya—a Franco-Japanese brasserie with locations in Beverly Hills, Venice, downtown Los Angeles, and San Francisco—don’t feel the need to compartmentalize. Their modern take on the shooter consists of a Fanny Bay oyster served in Kiku-Masamune junmai sake, with ponzu, seaweed, cucumber, green onion, radish, and a quail egg. “We use the junmai sake because it’s spicy and dry,” says Nicole Solomon, general manager of Chaya in Venice. “You have to do it all at once or you’re not getting the proper combination of flavors. Swish a little bit if you want, but do not chew.”
The quality of the oyster is paramount, Solomon agrees, but so is the quality of the sake. “You don’t want to put a milky, sweet sake in there with an oyster,” she says. “That’s simply too much texture at once.”
No matter its form, the shooter done right is no cheap training wheel. It delicately marries distilled elegance with chilled decadence, and—as it always has—it remains the most literal expression of the raw bar. But be careful. For all the things that an oyster shooter can be, one thing it is not is a painkiller for the liver that aches you.