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Taking Risks with Out of the Shell Oyster Pairings

While on dining assignments, I often challenge beverage pairings. Like a pearl imbeds in an oyster, sometimes these suggestions stick to the menu.

Just in time for this summer’s America’s Cup racing, I decided to make waves at Waterbar on San Francisco’s Embarcadero.

Inside Waterbar you quickly dip into a fantasy fish world. The oyster bar stands strategically near the door. Expansive windows overlook the Bay Bridge and two pier-invoking, floor-to-ceiling aquariums reinforce the marine bias.

I had previously asked Beverage Director Steven Izzo to consider unusual oyster pairings. Meanwhile I tapped a mollusk fanatic to accompany me on the adventure. Luckily he put on his best culinary game face—we created quite a stir as we surfed through six beverage pairings with nine oysters.

The day’s list was 25 deep. I chartered my ostracean-savvy friend to whittle it down.  He asked how many were legal to select. At first, I thought he was concerned about those that might have “fallen off a boat.” But these Waterbar bivalves are all sustainably raised or wild. Then I realized he didn’t know how many we would pair.

We were mesmerized by our oysters’ beauty and diversity of shapes, size and color. Thankfully they arrived with a cheat sheet to identity them and their provenance. Our vocabulary expanded with Izzo’s explanation of “meroir” (also “merroir”), a watery riff on terroir which indicates the geography and climate influencing grapes.

“Start with creamier, “tide tumbled” Shigoku first and end with the Olympias with their beach-grown, complex flavor,” said Izzo.

Waterbar was a good bet to challenge oyster and drink pairings. Izzo presented a thoughtful, seafood-friendly wine list and innovative cocktails. The house favorite pairing beverage for oysters was a bright rosé rather than the standard Sauvignon Blanc.

Izzo cruised over with five drinks: Veuve Clicquot Champagne, 2011 Far Niente Napa Valley Chardonnay, Guinness Stout, a Roadster cocktail with Ketel One vodka, Beefeater’s gin, St. Germain Elderflower liqueur, and cucumber, and Graham Beck Brut Rosé from South Africa.

Izzo launched our pairing cruise with helpful tips. He warned us that rosé may not be the best pairing with the coppery Olympias. Give the Far Niente a chance to shine, he said, and remember that Stout is the classic oyster pairing in the British Isles.

We were like kids playing on the beach as we tasted snippets of each oyster with our best guess at well-matched drinks. My friend dove for the Shigoku from Wash. “It’s creamy like a clam and pairs best with the sparkling rosé which dances off the tongue and lightens the rich oyster.” Though I was skeptical of sampling the buttery, rich Shigoku with the buttery Far Niente Chardonnay, the pairing worked.

As we bit into the Sting Ray’s from Va., we both tasted olive notes. Mr. Oyster Maven reached for the Chardonnay and found the wine’s viscosity matched the velvety texture of the oyster. I thought the Guinness overpowered the oyster and the rosé fell flat.

I eagerly bit into the big Diamond Points from New York which looked like the oysters from my East Coast youth.  My winning pairing was the Veuve Clicquot whose yeastiness held its own against the briny profile. 

At this point in the tasting panel, the ostreaphile noted how the wines changed dramatically with each oyster. “The Diamond Points taste so clean and crisp—now the Far Niente tastes clean and crisp with them.”

We both hit upon a surprising pairing for the Marin Miyagis (Calif.) with their “briny, crisp lettuce and bitter herb finish.”  The Roadster cocktail, with its bright cucumber note and slightly herbaceous dose of gin, picked up the herb notes in the oyster.

The Alpine Bays from Prince Edward Island, wild harvested with a “briny, clean mineral finish” hit us with a slight barnyard note. I immediately reached for the Veuve Clicquot and enjoyed the complex, yeasty match. My companion liked the demi-sec Champagne whose sweetness complemented the minerality of the oyster.  He began to muse about Pinot Noir with this oyster; the gastronomic juices were flowing.

We concluded with the coppery Olympias from Wash. Along with the menu description of “full flavor, sweet celery and coppery”, my companion detected a Fuji apple note which made the Far Niente unpleasantly acidic and thin. We both praised the Roadster’s vegetative twist with the oysters.  With our last mouthful of Olympias, we dipped into the cucumber mignonette we had ignored while sticking to plain bivalves with the beverages.

At the finish we were in a dead heat to see who got the last drop of the delicious mignonette. Two women interrupted to ask about our oyster frenzy. They had watched the photo-taking and wine-tasting and wondered what was going on. I told them we had enjoyed a custom oyster and beverage pairing. One of the women said, “You looked like you were having such a good time, we wanted to try it.”

When Izzo stopped by our table, we told him about our eager visitors. Since you have flights of oysters like the Kumamotos tonight, I asked, “What about an oyster and multi-beverage flight as a special?” Izzo said he might consider this.

Waterbar affords bay views and a 360-dgree perspective on a drink’s texture, taste profile and depth of flavor to savor with the raw bar or Chef Parke Ulrich’s food. With Izzo at the helm, whatever guests select to eat may hook an intriguing beverage mate.Waterbar SF Oyster and Beverage pairing Photo Credit - Deborah Grossman

Waterbar SF Oyster and Beverage pairing

Photo Credit - Deborah Grossman

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