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Kevin Joseph, a self-described mermellier, gives some oyster ground rules. 

Hannah Walhout
July 24, 2017

Oysters are one of the world's most impenetrable delicacies (sometimes, literally)—enigmatic, amorphous and surrounded by ritual. Restaurants who serve them often offer varieties from all around the world with little explanation, served with a cavalcade of mignonettes and toppings. But which oysters should you order? And what should you actually put on them?

If you’re not sure where to begin, start with some advice from oyster expert Kevin Joseph, co-founder of New York Oyster Week. He’s currently hosting an oyster tasting menu pop-up at Megu in New York City, showcasing international varieties and experimenting with pairings and flavor profiles. We picked his brain about his favorite shellfish.  

What to look for when ordering oysters

For Joseph, the oyster experience at a restaurant should be “no gimmicks: just superior product, live shucking, excellent service and extraordinary presentation.” If a restaurant piles on the cocktail sauce, it might be a red flag—you don’t want to obscure the taste of the shellfish. At the Megu pop-up, he puts the focus on the oysters themselves with a clean, omakase-style menu. 

Though his favorite oysters shine on their own, Joseph knows that pairings can enhance the oyster experience when executed thoughtfully. “It’s as much about what we don’t use as what we do use,” he says. For example, “No cocktail sauce, ever!” His preferred pairings include “freshly made mignonettes, spirits and fruits.” 

Must-know oyster varieties

Blue Point oysters:

Joseph calls these “the Budweiser of oysters,” since they’re so ubiquitous—“everybody and their sister-in-law have had 7,000 Blue Points in their life.” He characterizes them, generally, as having medium salinity and medium minerality on the bite and finish.

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Olympia oysters:

This Washington state species (the only one indigenous to the West Coast) were the favorites of both James Beard and Mark Twain. Once functionally extinct, they're produced by only a few people in the state. These oysters have a medium salinity and a highly mineral taste that Joseph likens to a penny.

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Belon oysters:

These are native to the Belon river in northwestern France, but Joseph notes that “some made their way [to the US] in the 18th century, and we now have a wild population in Maine.” These are creamier, flatter and rounder than other oysters, and can be similar to Olympias—medium salinity and high minerality.

 John Patriquin/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Pacific oysters: 

Though they’re now booming in the States, these varieties (of which there are over 1,000) are indigenous to the Western Pacific and Asia. “They were introduced by Japanese immigrants [who] began to practice aquaculture and built an enormous industry.” Favorite varieties include Capital and Shigoku oysters from Washington, Kusshi oysters from British Columbia, and the coveted Hog Island Sweetwaters from California. These varieties typically have a low-medium salinity, with grassy notes and fruit flavors like melon and cucumber. 

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Kumamoto oysters:

This variety is grown in three different regions: Washington, California and Baja. Joseph endorses those from the Pacific Northwest, specifically the Kumos from Taylor Shellfish on Puget Sound. Kumamotos have been trendy recently because, Joseph says, "they're small, frilly, delicate and hard to grow." Low in salinity, they are usually described as sweet with fruit or grassy vegetal flavors.

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Except for the Belon and Olympia varieties, which are only available in the winter, these will all be on hand at the Megu pop-up—and Joseph says he'll also have “rare, ultra-premium oysters from everywhere we legally can.” His favorite oyster origins of late include New Zealand, Baja, Alaska, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Plus, a super-rare variety from North Carolina.

Hungry for more? Joseph will be curating the Oyster Experiment Series at New York City’s Megu through August 5.