Food - Glutton at Large: Oysters in Atlanta

Get 'em while they're cold

There's nothing like a good oyster. It is the perfect mix of mystery, sensuality, and humbleness, and shows the rewards of human curiosity. It's easy to imagine one of our ancestors spying a gull drop an oyster, watching it crack open to reveal its slippery form, and thinking, "I'm going to eat that. That looks good."

As common as oyster bars are in the Northeast and Northwest, just five years ago, Atlanta's options for a chilly and slippery bite of the sea were sparse. There were a few reliable spots, including Fontaine's Oyster House (1026 1/2 N. Highland Ave., 404-872-0869) and C&S Seafood and Oyster Bar (3240 Cobb Parkway, 770-272-0999), but options were limited. Since then, Atlanta's oyster lovers have seen an explosion in restaurants serving a variety of well-sourced bivalves.

Atlanta's biggest oyster champion is Kimball House (303 E. Howard Ave., Decatur, 404-378-3502). I was shocked at the breadth of the oyster menu when I first saw it. It is 20 deep with selections from everywhere imaginable. The menu offers tidy tasting notes next to each item so you can decide if you are in the mood for a briny, bready, or vegetal bite.

Your choice of oysters comes on a bed of ice, decorated with a pop of fresh seaweed, and a brown medicine bottle of mignonette complete with a medicine dropper so that you can control the amount of vinegar.

Brick Store/Kimball House's co-owner Bryan Rackley has partnered with Ted Golden, aka local blogger Foodie Buddha, and Bill Walton, assistant professor in Auburn University's Department of Fisheries & Allied Aquacultures, to host an oyster symposium of sorts in March. The idea is to educate chefs and other food industry folks about options in the Southeast.

"My sincere hope is that we'll see raw bars across the Southeast with selections of premium Southeastern oysters. Kimball House is out in front on this, but it's a true oyster renaissance," Walton says.

Rackley would like to help erase the stigma associated with Gulf oysters and help grow the industry with this get-together.

"Our hope is that the Atlanta market can have some degree of financial support so that the work that these farmers are doing becomes the norm rather than the exception in the Gulf," he says. "From economics to the environment, the Gulf could really benefit from the increase in aquaculture. Plus it's really awesome when you rely very heavily on having product shipped all over North America only to discover that there's some really cool stuff that's sort of in your backyard."

Chef Ford Fry's love of everything ocean has given Atlanta not one, but two excellent seafood restaurants. Both the Optimist (914 Howell Mill Road, 404-477-6260) and the recently opened St. Cecilia (3455 Peachtree Road, 404-554-9995) have already gained national attention and are consistently some of our city's most competitive reservations. Both restaurants source quality seafood and craft it into creative presentations. The Optimist's prominent oyster bar welcomes diners into the restaurant's cool rehabbed industrial building. While oysters are served in the dining room, at the oyster bar, you can walk right in with no reservation and sample any of the 8-10 daily selections from places like Prince Edward Island, Washington State, Virginia, Rhode Island, and more. The accompanying homemade hot sauce and crackers are a nice touch that makes a platter of chilly raw oysters more of a light meal. At St. Cecilia, oysters are given a more upscale treatment. In one recent presentation, the Kumamoto oysters were served on a bed of ice and topped with Meyer lemon foam and slender wisps of fresh fennel fronds. Fry says he may add more to the menu of his new hot spot.

Many long-standing restaurants that serve fresh oysters are often overlooked. One such place is Goin' Coastal (1021 Virginia Ave., 404-941-9117), which also has a location in Canton (125 W. Main St., Canton, 770-479-3737). Goin' Coastal serves its oysters raw or baked a few different ways, including Rockefeller, Parmesan and garlic, and crab-stuffed. Perhaps recognizing that seafood is one trend people never get tired of, local restaurant groups have put some money into developing concepts for ocean lovers. The Fifth Group now has Lure (1106 Crescent Ave., 404-817-3650) and Here to Serve has opened Shucks Oyster and Wine Bar (705 Town Blvd., 404-846-1777) in the newish Town Brookhaven development next to the super swank Cinébistro Theater. And, if you are on a budget, tons of restaurants — including Kimball House — have oyster happy hours. Wherever you live and whatever your budget, oysters are plentiful and available.

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