Sitting down at a raw bar can feel like trying to get a rowboat moving without oars. It’s intimidating and really easy to let indecision stop you from getting anywhere. But oysters are heroes in a half shell, packed full of flavor and depth, if you’re willing to step into unfamiliar waters.
We sat down with 801 Fish bartender Jon Hankins – you’ll often find him at the helm of the raw bar that is packed with caviar, jumbo shrimp (the restaurant stocks shrimp that are six-to-eight pieces per pound), clams, and tuna poke (pronounced po-kay, a deep red Hawaiian tuna with jicama, cucumber and a sweet soy glaze) – to help create a guide to enjoying oysters.
801 Fish in Leawood’s Park Place uses what Hankins calls “dock to door service,” which means they won’t buy seafood that has been out of the water for more than 36 hours. The oysters are all alive until they are shucked by the chef at the raw bar, just moments before they’re plated and handed to you.
“A lot of people interpret East Coast oysters as salty and briney with pretty dense meat while West Coast oysters are seen as lighter and brighter, maybe you get a hint of grass,” Hankins says. “There are oysters that eat like that, but there is so much more to each coast.”
The oysters are served with lemon, a red wine mignonette (red wine, red wine vinegar, black pepper, shallot and a bit of Italian parsley), freshly shaved horseradish root that ranges from “spicy to burn your nostrils spicy,” and house cocktail sauce.
When it comes to eating the oyster, Hankins recommends taking the shell and shooting back the liquor (the liquid inside the shell that the oyster naturally produces to keep alive) and holding it in your mouth for a second.
“You’ll get this real fresh brine. Then, you can give the oyster meat a couple of chews – you don’t have to chew it like you’re eating a steak, but it gives it a chance to release all its flavors,” Hankins says. “Then let it go to the back of your throat and swallow. That’s when the oyster finish presents itself.”
For those new to oysters, Hankins will often start with the 801 Signature – an oyster cultivated for the restaurant in Topping, Virginia. The species picked by the Leawood restaurant are found in a tributary of the Rappahannock River – a body of water known for producing approachable oysters.
“The 801 Signature gives you a little brine that’s like taking a shot of the ocean,” Hankins says. “And then it’s like a good chardonnay and gives you this buttery, sweet finish.”
That’s why he’ll often recommend a light oaky chardonnay as a pairing – something that shares that same buttery finish. Hankins also steers those new to the raw bar experience toward an oyster out of Puget Sound, which will have be a bit smaller and have a bright finish like cucumber or watermelon. He’s partial to the Kumamoto – a deep-cupped Washington oyster – that is almost reminiscent of eucalyptus and has a fleeting finish of salted butter.
“West Coast oysters, for the most part, work really well with a nice Sauvignon Blanc, wines out of New Zealand,” Hankins says. “You get some of that citrus and a grass finish.”
For those who are ready to venture into the deep end of the tide pool, Hankins mentions the Grand Duxbury. This is a massive Massachusetts oyster, over two inches in diameter, with brine, mineral and butter notes.
“This one hits all the senses and sticks with you for one or two minutes after you take it,” Hankins says.
The Grand Duxbury goes well with a Boulevard Imperial Stout or a Guinness, helping to bring out the spice notes in the beers. Hankins also recommends a dirty martini – 801 Fish has anchovy-stuffed olives to give the drinks a little extra kick of brine.
801 Fish has an oyster happy hour daily from 4 to 6 p.m., with one oyster from each coast for $1.
“People don’t expect all these different profiles in oysters. But oysters eat like a good wine drinks,” Hankins says. “You just have to be open to the experience.”
Find Your Flavor is a series of sponsored posts on The Recommended Daily. Over the course of the next year, we’ll explore the menus, cuisine and folks behind dishes at the restaurants in Leawood’s Park Place. We talked food loves with 801 Chophouse’s chef Jeremy Kalcic, visited chef Leo Santana’s scratch kitchen at Carma, looked at how Gordon Biersch pairs food and brews, saw how Pickleman’s is reinventing the sandwich shop, learned about t. Loft’s evolution into a health cafe, discovered cake made daily at Cupcake a la Mode and created a pairing guide for the case at Paciugo.[Close up oyster image courtesy of 801 Fish]