Alice in Oysterland

A virgin on the half-shell at Central Avenue Oyster Bar

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I was once told by a close friend who is expert in all things oyster that one should only consume the slippery bi-valves in a month with the letter R in its name. Before the age of proper refrigeration, this old wives' tale cautioned folks to stay away from raw seafood during the hot summer months. But even in modern times, it's a helpful hint to keep in mind. Oysters spawn in warm water, making the meat thin and tasteless, so true aficionados know that fall and winter are prime time for mollusk munching.And though, as Lewis Carroll might say, the sun is shining on the sea, shining with all its might, we are well and truly into the "R" months. That's why my oyster-loving friend and I decided to play the Walrus and the Carpenter at a local oyster bar — so that I, a raw-oyster novice, could see what all the fuss is about.

As far as I'm concerned, consuming raw oysters is a dicey proposition. As Jonathan Swift once said, "He was a bold man that first eat an oyster." Even with modern refrigeration, screening and farming processes, there's still a calculated risk in slurping down raw shellfish, a forbidden thrill that only adds to the oyster's reputation as an aphrodisiac.

The legend got its start with the oyster-friendly tale of the birth of Venus, Goddess of Love, who floated to land — naked! — on the half-shell. Difficulty in procuring quality raw oysters in times past made it a rare gift to be shared on special occasions, and endorsements by such famous historical lovers as Cleopatra (who ate hers alongside a goblet of wine seasoned with the mollusk's crushed pearl) and Casanova (rumored to keep up his strength by snacking on five dozen per day) vaulted the humble bottom-feeder to unsurpassed heights as the definitive food of love. Modern nutritionists say it is the rather lascivious shape, flavor and odor of the seafood that accounts for all the hype, though they grudgingly admit that oysters are high in zinc, phosphorus and iodine, believed to contribute to sexual stamina.

However, you cannot deny that the very ritual of eating raw oysters is a rather intimate activity. You and your partner of choice pick two shells and adorn them with your favorite condiments. Your eyes meet fleetingly over the rim of the shell and then, simultaneously, you tip the oysters toward your mouths, allowing the meat and the subtly flavored liquor to slide past lips and tongues and down your throats. Not exactly G-rated. You start to wonder what the Walrus and the Carpenter were really up to.

We choose the Central Avenue Oyster Bar in St. Petersburg for my virgin oyster expedition. Though the stylish little eatery is part of the Crabby Bill's restaurant family, you'd never guess it by the upscale décor. Bill's signature, paper-covered picnic tables are nowhere to be seen. The décor is more downtown chic, with white tablecloths, linen napkins and bouquets of daisies everywhere. Paintings by local artists line the exposed brick walls and Day-Glo gargoyles grace a bar stocked with top-shelf liquors, while streetlamp-style light fixtures and an old-fashioned brass cappuccino machine give the restaurant a decided N'awlins air.

The folks at the Oyster Bar are very serious about quality (required when one is serving raw food — even with disclaimers — to the public). They get their Louisiana Select oysters from Galveston Bay (oysters tend to be classified on menus according to point of origin). Though the staff is quick to let us know their joint is "not just oysters" (the restaurant also serves steaks, pastas, sandwiches, etc.), our waiter gets a decided gleam in his eye when we order a dozen raw ($8.95). The gleam is matched by my friend (let's call him the Walrus, after Carroll's greedy oyster-eater), who passes the lag time regaling me with stories of his oyster-eating past. As a toddler, he would dip his little three-year-old fingers into jars of raw oysters brought home by his father, hoping to snatch up a treat. Later, he describes the joy of perching on the side of a boat in the Chesapeake, scooping up oysters by the dozen, shucking and slurping them down before they gasp their last oyster breath. "If you watch closely," he says, "you can see them shudder when you put lemon juice on them."

At this point, the mollusks aren't alone in shuddering. Clearly, eating raw oysters requires not only the heart of a lover, but also the soul of a predator.

At last they arrive, resplendent on a bed of ice, quivering slightly in the iridescent interior of their thick, solid-looking shells. These mollusks don't have the delicate, elegant exteriors of their mussel and clam cousins. They don't open to reveal their secrets at the slightest hint of steam. These are hard-core houses, built to withstand trauma and protect the vulnerable globs (and pearls) inside. It took a shucking knife to pry these suckers open, and now I'm supposed to swallow them, raw, whole, perhaps even slightly alive?

The Walrus is practically drooling.

He squeezes lemon juice over his half, and, though I watch closely, I think he was kidding me about that whole shuddering thing. The oysters don't seem to mind, which gives me a level of peace. There are a whole host of condiments: the aforementioned lemon juice, horseradish, cocktail sauce and even Tabasco, so I play chemist for a bit, trying to decide which combination suits my taste. In the end, however, I think I owe the oysters an unadorned consumption. Each one clings to life and hearth through a tenuous connection to its shell, which one must sever before slurping. It's easier than I thought, and after a few false starts, I'm ready for my close-up.

Silky in texture, with an understated hint of brine and a faint metallic flavor reminiscent of clams and mussels but encompassing neither, the oysters are an interesting discovery. I sprinkle, I slurp, I swallow, but I don't think I've acquired the necessary taste for the raw seafood. Luckily, The Oyster Bar has several cooked options. Oysters Rockefeller are served on the half shell with spinach and cream, and provide a classy option with more traditional flavors than some of the other options. "Mexican" oysters, also on the half shell, are baked with chopped tomatoes, cheese, garlic, cumin and cilantro, and manage to add a bit of pizzazz to the shellfish without drowning out its flavor. The third oyster option is battered and deep-fried with a very spicy chipotle cream sauce. Make sure your water glasses are full before sampling that one. You can order a "trio" — an even dozen split between these three cooking styles — for $8.95.

The shellfish-wary amongst us have other options at the Oyster Bar. I'm a big fan of their shredded crabcakes, and really enjoy the crabcake sandwich ($9.95) on a sourdough roll with a side of french fries spiced with — if not Old Bay Seasoning, a reasonably close facsimile. Outright landlubbers can enjoy steaks, chicken and pasta on an entree menu that ranges from $10.95 to $19.95.

But for those who dare, the oysters beckon. And that's an invitation that a hungry walrus, carpenter or food critic can hardly ignore.

Freelance writer Diana Peterfreund dines anonymously and the Planet pays for her meals. She may be contacted at [email protected]. Restaurants are chosen for review at the discretion of the writer, and are not related to advertising.

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