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February 18, 2009 at 12:37 PM

Shigoku oysters. Hot stuff. Can’t get enough

Don’t look a gift box in the mouth. That’s what some of the city’s top chefs have been saying — once they’re lucky enough to get their hands on this:

We live in an oyster paradise, sure. But what’s better than a kumamoto, kusshi or a Totten Virginica — my idea of oyster heaven on a half-shell? This sexy trio, slurped to my intense satisfaction last night at Chiso Kappo:

Too bad there’s not enough of these prize possessions to go around. Which helps explain why, before last night, I’d never heard of Shigoku oysters let alone hoisted their deep little shells — each cradling a meaty morsel of magical, if relatively minuscule, proportion. “You’ve got to taste these oysters,” said sushi chef Taichi Kitamura, who was serving omakase elegance to a full-house upstairs at Kappo (recession be damned).

Afishionados from near (Lower Queen Anne, Lake Forest Park) and far (Vancouver, BC, Buffalo, NY) lined his intimate sushi bar, taking sake suggestions from his spot-on server, Julie — a former sake-buyer for Uwajimaya. I found them taking their chopsticks to everything from the delicate meat-on-the-bone of idiot fish kama (no, I’m not making that name up) to fatty slivers of Japanese Wagyu beef offered as that do-it-yourself delicacy, shabu shabu:

“Do these jeans make me look fat?” “No, the fancy-fat you’ve been eating makes you look fat.”

Taichi fires up the broth for his shabu shabu

So, what’s up with those Shigoku? And how come I’m only now getting hip to the bitsy bivalve that’s raising the oyster bar here in Seattle?

“Did you ever try to watch an oyster grow when you’re in a hurry for it to grow?” asked seafood guru Jon Rowley, marketing maven for Taylor Shellfish Farms. The Shigoku are a pet-project of 88-year-old patriarch Justin Taylor, Rowley told me, and as such are still under development. “They’re new. They’re very new.”

How new is new? “I’ve been selling them for about three weeks,” said Taylor’s man-on-the-street, “Oyster Bill” Whitbeck, whose been making the rounds delivering the goods in five-pound boxes — sold wholesale at $50 a pop to a Who’s-Who of restaurant recipients. His recent check-list included: Anchovies & Olives (for this week’s planned “soft opening”), Ama Ama, Art of the Table (where my blog-buddy Frank a.k.a. “Proncis” was wowed this week), BOKA, Brasa, Boat Street Cafe, Cremant, Crush, Frank’s Oyster House, Harvest Vine, How to Cook a Wolf, Poppy, Rover’s and Seastar (now open in Seattle).

You might also find Shigoku for home consumption at Wild Salmon Seafood Market in Fisherman’s Terminal. And Oyster Bill said he’s been “rationing them” — first-come, first-serve — at his farmers market stall on Saturdays (in the University District) and Sundays (in Ballard) for $12 a dozen:

Shigoku are Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas), Bill notes, and Taylor’s farming them in Bay Center — a tiny town built on a peninsula that juts out into the oyster-friendly waters of Willapa Bay. Like the better-known kusshis, farmed in B.C., the Shigoku are suspension-grown and tumbled by tide, the bags of oyster seed fitted with floats and hung on a line. “Every time the current changes directions, the floats go up and the bags rise,” Bill explained. “When the tide drops, they’re rotated — tumbled by nature. It’s the tumbling that keeps the shells from growing outward, keeps the edges smooth and helps the oyster develop its deep cup.”

And it’s the delectable meat — along with their clean, deep cups — that has chefs like Taichi Kitamura vying to introduce customers to the oysters I sampled last night. Those were planted in early fall, according to Austin Docter, Taylor Shellfish’s plant manager, who’s responsible for the what and when of the local oyster harvest. Unlike most Pacifics which take at least two years to mature, the Shigoku grow faster due to the tidal tumbling, says the oyster Docter. Which means they make it from seed to sale in short order. Though apparently, not short enough.

That’s why, until I called to say “What gives?” this morning, Jon Rowley has been uncharacteristically mum on the subject. “There’s not enough Shigoku available for the demand there is now,” said the man who turned chefs and food scribes nationwide on to such Northwest seafood staples as Copper River king salmon and Mediterranean mussels. “When you develop something like this, you start out with a very small quantity. It’s a `hurry up and wait’ kind of thing — and that’s frustrating for everybody.”

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