All the Oysters You Need to Know, According to an Expert

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

Oyster and Wine Pairings
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Oysters are one of the world's most impenetrable delicacies (sometimes, literally) — enigmatic and surrounded by ritual. Restaurants that serve them may offer varieties from around the world with little explanation, served with an array 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 Oyster Week. Over the years, Kevin has hosted an oyster tasting menu pop-up at Megu in New York City, where he has showcased international varieties and experimented with pairings and flavor profiles. Here's some of his shellfish expertise.

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 on the East Coast — "everybody and their sister-in-law have had Blue Points in their life." He characterizes them, generally, as having medium salinity and medium minerality on the bite and finish.

Blue Point oysters
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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.

Olympia Oysters
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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 U.S.] 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.

Belon oysters
 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.

Pacific oysters
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Kumamoto oysters

This variety is grown in three regions: Washington, California, and Baja. Joseph endorses those from the Pacific Northwest, specifically the Kumos from Taylor Shellfish on the Puget Sound. Kumamotos have been trendy 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.

Kumamoto oysters
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Except for the Belon and Olympia varieties, which are only available in the winter, these can all be on hand at Joseph's Megu pop-up, plus a few extra treats: He tries to serve "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 also curates an "omakase raw bar experience" called Raw Lab in historic downtown Charleston, South Carolina.

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