In Consider the Oyster, M.F.K. Fisher catalogs the mollusk's numerous adversaries: the duck, the slipper, the mussel, the black drum, the leech, the sponge, the borer and the starfish. "She has eight enemies," Fisher writes, "not counting man who is the greatest, since he protects her from the others only to eat her himself."
It's a hard-knock life, for sure. And to think of the lengths to which the Gulf oyster in particular goes in order to make herself undesirable (or himself -- the oyster changes its sexual orientation like it's a shade of eye shadow). Aside from sealing herself inside a bedrock-solid shell, she makes herself the color of cement, she's wet and slimy, she occasionally harbors worms and once in a while she kills a vulnerable eater.
What more could a hard-suffering creature do to triumph at the survival-of-the-fittest game? Shriveling up wouldn't help -- the Chinese have innumerable ways for making dried oysters delicious. She might try producing more tooth-cracking concretions, but they'd be quickly strung up and sold for a mint. If the oyster ever truly determined to defend herself, she would need to alter her essence: She would embitter her clean, salty flesh with ammonia and poison her precious liqueur with nettles. Where would her foremost enemy be then? What would we eat at Barataria?
Barataria is an understated neighborhood restaurant situated along a stretch of Harrison Avenue in Lakeview, where understated, neighborly restaurants are the favor. An oystering family ran it for eight years, until Steve and Donna Nold took over this past July. The new owners have upgraded the steaks and are currently overhauling the wood-fired oven; they haven't changed much otherwise, above all not the oyster selection.
In her exposition, Fisher likens Southern oysters to Southern ladies: "delicate and listless." "On the Mexican Gulf they are definitely better cooked [than raw]," she dares to declare. Clearly she never visited Casamento's in December. The affront to our oysters and women notwithstanding, it's true that fat, juicy Gulf oysters lend themselves to cooking better than do their smaller, more delicately perfumed peers from colder waters. They retain their bulk when moderately heated, and they flex their muscles when other strong flavors enter a recipe.
Witness Barataria's Rockefeller-style baked Oysters Four Bayou, topped with a violet-tinted mixture of wilted spinach, breadcrumbs and Herbsaint. These are fortified with the dark, breathy, anise flavor that's so flattering to an oyster's salty, rock pool freshness. Take also the Oysters Bay Batiste. Hoisting the abstract, brown mass from the grandiose shell it is baked in, you first bite through the smoked, earthy flavor of a chorizo and mushroom dressing; then, as your teeth push through the ballooned oyster, a surge of a warm ocean rises up and meets the sausage dressing as naturally as the surf greets the sand.
A basic, complementary blend of breadcrumbs, garlic and butteriness forms a lovely crust over the Oysters Barataria Bay. The two remaining baked oyster dishes involve a creamy, three-cheese sauce that's as severe as aged Roquefort, which is to say almost too severe even for a winter oyster. Almost. A Oysters Box-Em sampler platter containing all five baked oyster preparations is Barataria's crown jewel.
Just about the only way you cannot have your oysters here is raw, which will displease zealots who believe that's the only way to eat them this time of year. If it's any consolation, Barataria's oysters are baked to maximum expansion and just heated through; extra ingredients are (mostly) icing on the cake when oysters exhibit the vim and vigor I enjoyed during my visits.
This was also true of the elegant, nutmeg-dusted milk soup, in which the oysters had cooked only until their edges barely scalloped. And fried oysters bundled in puffed jackets of cornmeal batter saved two otherwise flawed dishes: a pizza whose crust's resilient chewiness resembled a New York street vendor's pretzel, and a well-done carpet bagger steak (ordered medium-rare) whose accompanying mirliton stuffing contained musty-tasting crawfish. Even if these particular crawfish were a fluke, you'd be wise to request a side of the excellent andouille dressing shot through with rough-chopped oysters instead.
The best non-shellfish dishes came from the dessert list. Warm blueberries and crunchy granola formed a sort of cobbler top for a dish of light baked custard. From the side, a spice-swirled apple bread pudding resembled a hulking cinnamon roll; a sweet, boozy sauce kept it from tasting like breakfast.
Barataria is one of those neighborhood restaurants where, like at Pascal's Manale and Mandich, the bill total often exceeds expectations set by location, decor and easygoing service. The good news: Price and quality seem to have an inverse relationship here. After the $25.95 steak, my least satisfying meal was a $16.95 blackened, rare, catfish fillet. A sampler of 10 baked oysters: $15.90 and worth it.
The restaurant itself doesn't have a strong presence, aside from the golden oldies murmuring from ceiling speakers. It is, however, comfortable enough and friendly enough, a white-linen affair with carnations on the tables and a pastel-swept mural of an oyster boat.
We look past far worse for the oyster.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Greatest hits: The Oysters Box-Em platter, which features all five of BARATARIA's baked oyster preparations, is the menu's crown jewel.