Five years ago, I wrote a bitter little column in Toronto Life about oyster bars. Starfish had just opened, Oyster Boy was a year old and Rodney’s had settled in to what I still think of as the new premises on King West. All fine spots. The bitterness was because I adored oysters but was violently allergic to them—had been since I ate a bad one when I was 24—and occasional visits to an allergist continued to confirm the affliction. Sitting in her clinic, watching the pin pricks on my arm turn into swollen red welts, I tried to argue that this was only a temporary reaction. After all, I had outgrown hay fever, had learned to live with our cats. Maybe one day I would be able to eat an oyster again. “Carry an epi pen,” was the stern rejoinder.
Two years ago, my wife and I went to dinner with a really nice couple we scarcely knew. She is a chef and the meal was terrific. It began with a spectacular oyster soup. Dilemma. Should I speak up and refuse the delectable broth with its five naked malpeques lazing in the shallows? That would be terribly rude. But would it be worse if I turned red and threw up and had to be hastened home in a taxi? The soup did look and smell enticing. I ate the lot and was perfectly fine.
Ever since then, I have eaten at Starfish as often as I can. Owner and former world champion shucker, Patrick MacMurray, has made it his mission to guide me into the fullest possible appreciation of his constantly changing inventory, juxtaposing French belons and the infinitely nuanced harvest of the Maritimes, tender, sweet little BC kumamotos and rowdy Galway flats, as big and briney as the wide Atlantic. A dozen oysters and a hummock of Starfish’s matchless frites has become my default self-indulgence on nights when I’m not reviewing, swiftly followed by a dozen more.
I don’t garnish. Some people do—I’ve seen them reach for the lemon wedge or the cocktail sauce, the tabasco, the mignonette or the grated horseradish (that peculiarly Toronto adornment)—but I suspect they are not true oyster lovers. Anything added—even cringing the creature with a drop of bourbon or gin—merely masks the subtlety of the oyster, the hint of cucumber or the coppery aftertaste.
It’s hard to get a table at Starfish right now —the first week of soft-shelled crab season is well under way—but there are many more places to eat oysters in Toronto than there were five years ago. On Wednesday, I had some huge King’s Head malpeques at Amber. The chef at that elegant Yorkville watering hole, Signe Langford, has devised a dazzling condiment of sushi ginger, mirin and toasted black mustard seeds, all chopped up together, which I polished off as a palate cleanser between each of the slippery, salt-sweet trophies. Another dozen went down on Thursday at the brand-new Bluepoint Oyster Bar and Supper Club on King West at John, one of those restaurant-bar-lounges that are cropping up all over downtown. Go in around eight o’clock, when the theatre crowd has gone and the clubbers are still at home, if you want peace and quiet and a chat with the shucker behind the bar. I may be there, tipping back the half shells, comfortably incognito in my reviewer’s sombrero, determined to make up for a quarter century of nervous allergic self-denial.