There are a few culinary aspects to my life-saving liver transplant operation last year. Hard to believe the anniversary is on Friday July 6 and we’ll be having a ‘great to be alive’ dinner at Riva. Won’t be serving lamb’s fry.
I could, if I wanted to be insensitive – even ghoulish. There are a lot of things I can eat now that I and my new lifesaver liver can handle now that we are one year down the track and the number of anti-rejection drugs decreases monthly.
For that first year I was on the ‘pregnant woman’s’ diet. No sashimi, no sushi, no smoked salmon, no pate, no soft cheeses, no blue cheese, no cold cuts, no ham for Christmas. I was also not allowed any salads from salad bars or roast chickens from supermarket rotisseries. The salad ban because I couldn’t be sure how hygienic the washing process had been and the chicken ban because I couldn’t be sure how long those birds had been sitting on the warming tray.
I did have a lot of home-prepared salads and roasted many of my infamous crispy-skinned Chinese-style ‘laid a lot’ chickens. So named because as a bachelor I found the dish impressed women and the inviting smells of five spice powder, ginger, star anise and soy sauce, emanating from the kitchen, invited romance.
I think the thing I missed most on the banned list was oysters. Natural oysters. I know they can be an acquired taste [ Mrs. Nosebag has tried valiantly several times and still loathes them] and I wondered if my taste buds would still welcome them after a year’s sabbatical.
My doctors gave me dispensation to break the one-year moratorium a couple of weeks early so I decided to get back into bed with the oyster beds while holidaying in New York last month.
And where else would you break the ban than at the famed Grand Central Oyster Bar in the cavernous, tiled high-ceilinged bowels of Grand Central Terminal on 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue.
It’s all about oysters from all over the United States and Canada but they also serve fish from everywhere. Sturgeon, Alaskan salmon, halibut from Maine, even fried blowfish tails also known as ‘sea squab’.
[They even have one steak dish and half a roasted chicken on a massive menu.]
The day I broke my health-imposed oyster fast there were 32 different types of oysters on the menu and Little Neck, Top Neck and Cherrystone clams from Long Island.
With the Aussie dollar at par with the Greenback, oysters in New York were cheap compared with most up-market Australian seafood spots. At Rockpool in Melbourne Coffin Bay oysters are now $5 each. The most expensive at the Oyster Bar were Cleveden Coast from New Zealand at $3.75. Most others ranged from $1.95 for Blue Point from nearby Long Island Sound – my least favoured -- to less than $2.50.
Even my favourites on the day, Kumamoto from Oregon, were only $3.25. As well, I had three each of the following: Chef’s Creek [British Columbia], French Kiss and Bras D’Or [Nova Scotia] the big Malpeque [Prince Edward Island], Beavertail [Rhode Island], and Rocky Pass [Alaska]. My clear favourites, as I mentioned, the small, briny, Komamoto from Oregon. Not as small, or quite as good, as the caviar of oysters: the Kumamoto from Coffin Bay National Park served occasionally at the Botannical in Melbourne.
The Oyster Bar is a great big busy brash New York landmark with more locals dining there than tourists. A smart move is to dine at the small, less noisy adjacent saloon section.
Back at our hotel and feeling mighty satisfied with a mission accomplished – and relieved my 12-month medical ban hadn’t dented my taste for oysters – I received a coincidental email from my brother, Des, in New Zealand. He’d just read a newspaper article about great oyster restaurants in New York. Grand Central got a mention but so too did a place in downtown SoHo called the AquaGrill.
Next day we were off to the increasingly trendy SoHo [so named because it’s an area south of Houston Street] and on the corner of 6th Avenue and Spring Street I found another oyster pearl.
They had 26 varieties and for $72 you could have one of each. Their top price was $3.25 for Komamoto from California and Washington State. Both were good but I found the Washington ones a tad better.
I also tasted these: Sisters’ Point [Washington], Indian Creek [Prince Edward Island],Watch Hill [ Rhode Island], Beau Soleil [New Brunswick].
I stuck to oysters but loved the sound of a ‘grilled wild white salmon sandwich with marinated cucumbers and peppercress and horseradish mayonnaise’.
Back in Melbourne and back to the harsh winter realities – having gone from 40 degrees in the U.S. to four degrees at home. Mrs.Nosebag sensed my withdrawal symptoms and took me to the new Champagne and Oyster Bar at the Atlantic restaurant at Crown.
I was ‘avoidably detained’ when it opened late last year [spending five months under house arrest] but a pleasure delayed is still a pleasure. What a find.
And civilised hours. Being at Crown they are open from noon until 1a.m. seven days a week.
This is the perfect grazing territory. Comfortable, sophisticated. From South Australia they have Coffin Bay, Smoky Bay [two of the three best oysters in the country] plus Cowell Bay and Franklin Harbour. They’re $4 each and they have a dozen Pristine oysters, also from SA, for $30.
They don’t only serve oysters. There’s great taste and great value in the whole split oven-grilled Queensland prawns in chilli and olive oil for $22 and seafood skewers of fish and scallops for $27.
If you’re a big seafood eater try this for two people at $60 a head: 8 oysters, 4 prawns, tempura soft-shell crab, fillets of barramundi, salad and fries with a spiced rhubarb and strawberry dessert.
I stuck to oysters and prawns but we shared some wicked desserts: The passionfruit chocolates balls, the best nougat in town and a macaroon with fig ice cream.
Shucks [ bad pun] it was good to be home.