Venus, powerful and lusty goddess of love and beauty, sprang forth from the salty spray of the sea. Her ride of choice? The iconic oyster. Can you imagine Botticelli’s Birth of Venus featuring anything else? Half a hoagie? A lox-laden bagel? Venus on the half-Oreo? Even a crab leg or fish taco would fall miserably short. This—of course—is because oysters are singularly alluring, slurp after chin-dribbling slurp. Yes—another rare instance where loud, public slurping is not just OK. It’s encouraged.
Unlike so many sterile, vacuum-sealed foodstuffs, oysters tie us to a basic need to crack our dinner open and devour what’s inside. We’ve been doing this for hundreds of thousands of years, and perhaps this is why the tactile, primeval morsels continue to captivate our taste buds and bolster our desire.
As you well know, the recent Central Coast Oyster Festival brought a collective brine-induced euphoria to sea-swept Avila Beach. With accoutrements like white truffle garlic butter, agave wine-infused watermelon, crispy pork belly, and even Santa Maria-style red oak roasted tri-tip, competing chefs pulled out all the stops.
In the buttery afterglow, I still have shucking on my mind. This week, you’ll find me furiously scrubbing the bumpy shells—I use a travel-sized toothbrush—in preparation for my own extended feast. Seeking advice, I picked the brains of several participating Oyster Festival chefs. Break out the lemon and chilled white wine—this will take a while.
Chef Alex Radogna of Cuvee Champagne Bar: Do some shots
- PHOTO BY HENRY BRUINGTON
- CUVEE CHAMPAGNE BAR:
Each Friday, you can find Chef Alex Radogna down at the docks in Avila Beach, picking out about two dozen Blue Point oysters. Turns out, their smaller size is perfect for shooting down your gullet.
“Oysters open you up to so many things. Escargot, muscles, raw fish,” Radogna says in her endearing Chicago accent. “I remember barbecuing oysters for the first time with my father when I was 15—they really are a gateway.”
These days, the 25-year-old manager of Cuvee Champagne Bar prepares her oysters with tongue-tingling champagne mignonette. The Pismo Beach-based bar also offers up festive, soy-infused oyster shooters presented in toast-worthy shot glasses.
“In the end, it’s all about the juice,” she says.
Shoot ’em up, and try some bubbly while you’re at it—and don’t forget to visit cuveechampagnebar.com.
Chef Darric Evans of Rooster Creek: Bacon of the sea?
- PHOTO BY HENRY BRUINGTON
- ROOSTER CREEK:
“They’re rewarding,” says Chef Darric Evans of his extensive work with the sea creatures. “You want a little ocean in your oyster, but not too much.”
When I pressed a bit further, I uncovered an interesting fact: The recently appointed Rooster Creek chef personally prefers his oysters fried. I say, more power to him. Crunchy and golden, fried oysters offer a satisfying chewiness and choice dunk-ability.
For Oyster Fest, Evans created a unique take on Rooster Creek’s popular BLT sandwich, the only oyster dish served “off” the half-shell. As expected, the combination of avocado aioli and jalapeno bacon crumble packed a punch. Just don’t ask this guy where the spicy bacon came from. Evans (wisely) guards the purveyor like crispy gold.
Taste the BLT sando that inspired Darric’s JBLT oyster creation, and don’t forget to visit roostercreektavern.com.
Chef Lori Nunes of KunFusion: Shuck at your own risk
- PHOTO BY HENRY BRUINGTON
When I ask the pint-sized blonde whether it’s “fun” to work with oysters, she’s quick to the trigger.
“No,” she blurts out with a good-natured laugh. “I almost put a screwdriver through my hand about 15 times. They told me to stop [shucking], handed me a beer, and told me to sit down.”
The chef’s popular Asian fusion food truck has evolved into a globally inspired restaurant, featuring everything from Indian to Thai and Portuguese eats. The brick-and-mortar KunFusion eatery opened in Pismo Beach earlier this year.
The wise-cracking chef says she’s really more of a “burner” than a “cutter.” She shows me a silver-dollar sized welt on her arm, suffered that very morning. This woman truly bleeds for her oysters. Let this be a warning to all the first-time home shuckers out there.
Bring Lori a box of Band-Aids and stay for the Ahi tuna tacos and authentic Moo Fu, and don’t forget to visit Facebook.com/kunfusion.truck.
Chef Artie Reckert of Gypsy Flame: Hold the hot sauce
“I love raw oysters—period. Right out of the water, shucked and in my mouth … amazing,” Chef Artie Reckert says. “That being said, oysters are a lot like pizzas.”
According to Reckert, simplicity tends to trump trend—how can you go wrong with a ’za topped with the holy trinity: basil, mozzarella, and tomato?
Perhaps this is why the laid-back chef’s gourmet grilled pizza catering business, Gypsy Flame, is taking off across SLO County.
Reckert’s best advice: “Whatever you do, don’t drown your oysters in horseradish, lemon juice, and hot sauce.”
If you haven’t already experienced Artie’s gourmet grilled pizza (served most weekends at Paso Robles winery Chronic Cellars), feel free to stalk their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @gypsyflamepizza.
Chef Giancarlo Cucumo of Giancarlo’s: Mix it up
- PHOTO BY HAYLEY THOMAS
- GIANCARLO'S: Chef Giancarlo Cucumo prepares “Touch Me With Your Finger,” this year’s Central Coast Oyster Festival winner.
Hailing from “the heel of the boot” of Italy—Puglia, to be exact, 2013 Oyster Fest winner Chef Giancarlo Cucumo cut his teeth on the freshest seafood imaginable. His Morro Bay restaurant, Giancarlo’s, is an ode to Mediterranean fare.
The chef said he personally prefers Oysters Kilpatrick, a classic Australian recipe prepared with Worcestershire butter sauce, bacon crumbles, and lemon.
His wife and coastal radio personality, Laurie Cucumo, is possibly the luckiest woman on earth.
“He pretty much does it all,” she says. “I’ve seen him make crème brulee with oysters.”
Oyster-related dessert or simply oysters with dessert? Either way, he’s a keeper.
Do yourself a favor and order the chef’s cioppino with muscles, shrimp, scallops, crab, and fish of the day, and don’t forget to visit giancarlorestaurant.com.
Chef Maegen Loring: Don’t overthink it
With her disarming laugh and stylish spectacles, I found Oyster Fest judge chef Maegen Loring humble and full of practical advice.
The locally celebrated chef is beloved for former SLO hotspots The Neon Carrot and the Park restaurant. She continues to pour heart and soul into her successful catering business.
In her own kitchen, Loring said she scours the shells with a square nail brush. Once those babies sparkle, she cracks each morsel open with a sharp knife, then immediately wipes the blade with a cloth to banish sand particles.
“It’s important to develop your shucking muscles, too,” she says, tapping an area of flesh just below her collarbone.
Loring’s take is simple.
“It’s all about the freshness of the sea,” she says. “You know when the sea just smells good? That’s how you want them. I just want an oyster all on its own.”
- PHOTO BY HENRY BRUINGTON
This year’s Central Coast Oyster Festival winner was Chef Giancarlo Cucumo of Morro Bay Mediterranean haunt Giancarlo’s. “Touch Me With Your Finger” featured fresh oysters on the half shell accompanied by champagne mignonette and fingerlime caviar.
This year’s Central Coast Oyster Festival People’s Choice award went to Brian Appiano of Ribline, who offered up a white truffle garlic buttered barbecued oyster atop Santa Maria-style tri-tip and garnished with candied apple-wood smoked bacon and micro greens.
The coveted Judges Choice award was bestowed upon newcomer Chef Alex Radogna of Cuvee Champagne Bar in Avila Beach for her hot-to-trot dish, “Foreplay.” The combination of oyster on the half shell topped with sweet chili glaze, frosted damiana, and garnished with agave wine-infused watermelon spirals got the panel all hot and bothered. As Radogna proclaimed, sweetly, “It’s a little sweet—it’s a little heat.”