Raw oysters inspire the same debate as deep dish pizza, with clam and layer cake lovers insisting that if you’re not a fan, you “just didn’t eat them right.” While the verdict is still out on oysters’ aphrodisiac quality—the amino acids supposedly stimulate sex drive—one thing can be collectively agreed: raw oysters are the closest you can get to tasting the ocean. Some people would prefer the ocean fried in a tempura batter, others want to nibble on its raw offspring. In America’s furthest city from the ocean, those who prefer deep-fried, smothered seafood can’t be blamed.
But oysters have a unique history here in the Midwest. You might even consider oysters the region’s first food trend, as they were given to travelers along the Sante Fe trail along with the quintessential glass of champagne. Oysters, raw or cooked, were therefore consumed with fervor throughout the 19th century. The food fad has caused overfishing and the final collapse of the oyster market.
Unlike the “raw” tuna or salmon found in sushi around the world, oysters aren’t frozen: If they’re frozen, they’re essentially dead. You might get frozen oysters if you plan to cook them, but “fresh” raw oysters at a restaurant are really fresh. Typically, seafood takes at least two days to arrive here. This means that you have to trust the restaurant you are buying from.
In their raw form, there is no amount of culinary magic that can make an oyster “better” quality. Its integrity lies in its pure freshness. A shell of the shell, et voilá, the inevitable truth awaits. A squeeze of lemon or a squeeze of mignonette sets off the gelatinous shellfish beautifully, but still, these simple accompaniments can’t mask the funk of an oyster that’s been opened long before you’ve sat down at your table.
In Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, he refers to the childhood moment when he tastes his first raw oyster as “magical” and offers it as an example of how the risk of consuming a bad one shouldn’t stop you from trying the delicacy of the sea. Since feasting on delicacies from lands far, far away usually means you’ll be shelling out a few bucks, it helps to know which ones are worth the risk.
Almost always, a great raw oyster experience includes a visible oyster bar. The restaurants that have them make oysters their priority. As seen in the list below, restaurants are striving to do more and more to provide better quality seafood in landlocked Kansas City.
1. Prime Minister of the Earl
Of all marine fares, oysters take precedence at Earl’s Premier of Brookside (651 E. 59th St., KCMO, 816-255-3600, earlspremier.com). The restaurant’s cluttered East Coast vibe will make you feel like you’ve been on vacation along the coast of Maine and making a stop for lunch. Aromas of crispy fried cod and clam chowder help.
Owners Todd Schulte and Cory Dannehl have a partnership with the Maine Oyster Company to have shellfish delivered to their restaurant several times a week. The investment with the company means the oysters are harvested within a day or two of delivery, making them some of the freshest oysters you can get in Kansas City. Freshly printed “Oysters of the Day” cards on each table are further proof of Earl’s commitment, listing up to six different species with valuable information such as origin and tasting notes. I had the pleasure of trying Olympia oysters picked just the day before, confirmed by the receipt label that the restaurant collects with each shipment. They were sweet, savory and tasted like ocean breeze. A chilled gin and tonic was a perfect companion.
Chefs often say that when it comes to stellar seafood, their only job is not to screw it up. Earl’s has done the hard work up front and the oysters sparkle with nothing but a shell.
While many seafood restaurants have an oyster bar located inside their traditional bar, Farina in the Crossroads (19 W. 19th St., KCMO, 816-768-6600, farinakc.com) doesn’t mix pleasure with business . Two bars in Farina serve different specialties: one features a bartender shaking gin martini; the other is dedicated exclusively to shelling and serving the oysters. The dedication to shellfish requires a respectable selection in which Farina is more than successful. Michael Smith’s recognition of fresh seafood as a staple of Italian cuisine is evidenced by multiple species of oysters from every coast. Washington’s large Penn Coves are deliciously tender with a cucumber finish while Chebooktooks from Canada’s eastern province of New Brunswick take on a light, neutral flavor.
Smith’s obvious diligence immediately puts you at ease when eating shellfish raw in the heart of the Midwest. The upscale restaurant is made more relaxed by the presence of an oyster shucker behind the counter. Guests take on a voyeuristic role as work typically done behind the scenes comes to the fore and undulating seashells are opened for show. Oysters don’t tell lies and Farina has no secrets.
3. Jax Fish House
Jax Fish House and Oyster Bar debuted at the Plaza (4814 Roanoke Parkway, KCMO, 816-437-7940, jaxfishhouse.com) as its first location outside of Colorado, and it achieves an original take on the often-clichéd nautical theme familiar with splashes of fish.
Details like columns built from oyster shells and fish-shaped stained-glass installations hanging above the bar dazzle but are muted by the paper-covered tabletops.
The fish house prides itself on their pet oyster, the Chesapeake Bay Emersum, and they have every right to, as Jax is the owner of the oyster variety. It never fails to impress with its buttery finish. Similar to Earl’s, oysters are a priority for Jax. Daily happy hour offers $2.50 raw oysters along with half-price sparkling wines. Daily varieties include seven kinds of oysters. However, the Miyagi oyster, which has a light brine, was too pungent and left a deep-ocean taste that no amount of champagne could get rid of.
4. Pearl Tavern
With new business establishments opening regularly in Lee’s Summit, such as Smoke Brewing and Calaveras of late, the city appears to be in the midst of a glow. Pearl Tavern (1672 NW Chipman Road, Lee’s Summit, 816-347-1986, pearltavernkc.com), with its commitment to providing Lee’s Summit with quality seafood, is an unexpected and welcome addition. The casual spot puts seafood in a bar and grill setting, showcasing a daily list of fresh seafood and oysters available. While the raw oysters could have used a little more cleaning on the shuckers end, the quality was palpable and quite impressive considering the understated atmosphere in which the chicken tenders are on the menu.
5. Ocean Prime
When it comes to oysters, tip Ocean Prime (4622 Pennsylvania Ave., Suite 300, KCMO, 816-600-0630, ocean-prime.com), a fine-dining chain that serves some of Kansas City Most Notable Raw Oysters.
With a focus on steaks, seafood, and cocktails, Ocean Prime maintains its upscale vibe with an expensive menu, dimly lit dining room, and a few gimmicks. Dry ice was served alongside the oysters, providing a smoky aesthetic that added some dazzle. (The seafood towers are served with a larger, more majestic serving of dry ice.) There were only two types of oysters available, both of which were perfectly good: no fishy scents or annoying bits of sand lingering at the edge of the shells. While I missed the vinegar mignonette side, Ocean Prime is an example of a large chain that has their sign-in and prep processes kept to a minimum, creating seamless execution for the customer.
Also tried: Pierpont’s, Jarocho South and Yummi Crab.