Raw oysters inspire the same debate as deep dish pizza, with lovers of the bivalves and layered pies insisting that if you’re not a fan, “you just haven’t had them the right way.” While the verdict is still out on the aphrodisiac-quality of oysters—supposedly the amino acids stimulate the sex drive—one thing can be agreed upon collectively: Raw oysters are the closest you can get to tasting the ocean. Some people would rather have the ocean deep-fried in a tempura batter, others want to slurp up its raw offspring. In the American city that is the farthest away from an ocean as you can get, those who prefer their seafood fried and smothered cannot be blamed.
But oysters have a unique history here in the Midwest. You might even consider oysters the first food trend of the region, as they were given to travelers along the Sante Fe trail along with the quintessential glass of champagne. Oysters, raw or cooked, were consequently consumed throughout the nineteenth century with fervor. The food fad resulted in the overharvesting and ultimate crash of the oyster market.
Unlike the “raw” tuna or salmon found in sushi everywhere in the world, oysters are not flash-frozen—if they’re frozen, they’re essentially dead. You might get frozen oysters if you plan to cook them, but the “fresh” raw oysters at a restaurant really are fresh. Typically, seafood takes at least two days to make it here. This means you need to trust the restaurant you’re buying from.
In their raw form, there is no amount of culinary magic that can make the quality of an oyster “better.” Its integrity lies in its pure freshness. A shuck of the shell, et voilá, inescapable truth awaits. A squeeze of lemon or splash of mignonette are beautiful enhancers to the jelly-like mollusks, but still, these simple accompaniments cannot mask the funk of an oyster that was opened well before you sat down at your table.
In Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, he refers to the childhood moment of tasting his first raw oyster as “magic” and offers it as an example of how the risk of consuming a bad one should not deter you from experiencing the sea’s delicacy. Because feasting on delicacies from lands far, far away usually means you’re going to be shelling out a few bucks, it helps to know which ones are worth taking the risk.
Almost always, a prime raw oyster experience includes a visible oyster bar. The restaurants that have these make oysters their priority. As is seen in the ranked list below, restaurants are making the effort to go more and more out of their way to deliver better quality seafood to landlocked Kansas City.
1. Earl’s Premier
Out of all marine fare, oysters take precedence at Earl’s Premier in Brookside (651 E. 59th St., KCMO, 816-255-3600, earlspremier.com). The restaurant’s cluttered East Coast vibe will make you feel as though you’ve been vacationing along the coast of Maine and are making a pitstop for lunch. Aromas of crispy fried cod and clam chowder help.
Owners Todd Schulte and Cory Dannehl have a partnership with Maine Oyster Company to have the shellfish delivered to their restaurant several times a week. The investment with the company means that the oysters are harvested within a day or two of being delivered, making them some of the freshest oysters you can have in Kansas City. Freshly printed “Oysters of the Day” cards at each table are further evidence of Earl’s commitment, listing as many as six different species with valuable information such as origin and tasting notes. I had the pleasure of trying Olympia oysters that were harvested just the day before—confirmed by the receiving tag that the restaurant collects with each shipment. They were sweet, briney and tasted like the ocean breeze. A frozen gin and tonic was a perfect companion.
Chefs often say that when it comes to stellar seafood, their only job is to not ruin it. Earl’s has done the hard work up front, and the oysters shine with nothing more than a shuck.
Whereas many seafood restaurants have an oyster bar situated within their traditional bar, Farina in the Crossroads (19 W. 19th St., KCMO, 816-768-6600, farinakc.com) does not mix pleasure with business. Two bars in Farina serve different specialties: One features a bartender shaking up gin martinis; the other is devoted solely to shucking and serving oysters. The dedication to the shellfish begs for a reputable selection in which Farina more than succeeds. Michael Smith’s acknowledgment of fresh seafood as a staple of Italian fare is evidenced by multiple oyster species from each coast. Large Penn Coves from Washington are delectably tender with a cucumber-y finish while Chebooktooks from the eastern Canadian province of New Brunswick take on a light, neutral flavor.
Smith’s obvious diligence immediately puts one at ease when eating the raw shellfish in the heart of the Midwest. The upscale restaurant is made more relaxed with the presence of an oyster shucker behind the bar. Guests take on a voyeuristic role as work typically done behind the scenes comes to the forefront and wavy shells are pried open in showmanship. Oysters tell no lies, and Farina keeps no secrets.
3. Jax Fish House
Jax Fish House and Oyster Bar debuted on the Plaza (4814 Roanoke Parkway, KCMO, 816-437-7940, jaxfishhouse.com) as the first location outside of Colorado, and it achieves an original take on the often-cliched nautical theme familiar to seafood spots.
Details like pillars constructed of oyster shells and fish-shaped stained-glass installations hanging over the bar bedazzle but are toned down with paper lined tabletops.
The fish house boasts of their house oyster, the Emersum from Chesapeake Bay, and has every right to, as Jax is the proprietor of the oyster variety. It does not fail to impress with its buttery finish. Similar to Earl’s, oysters are a priority for Jax. The daily happy hour offers $2.50 raw oysters along with half-priced pours of bubbly wines. The daily varieties include seven types of oysters. However, the Miyagi oyster, which has a mild brine, was far too pungent and left a taste of ocean floor that no amount of champagne could get rid of.
4. Pearl Tavern
With new business establishments opening on the regular in Lee’s Summit, such as Smoke Brewing and Calaveras as of late, the city seems to be in the midst of a glow up. Pearl Tavern (1672 N.W. Chipman Road, Lee’s Summit, 816-347-1986, pearltavernkc.com), with its effort to provide Lee’s Summit with quality seafood, is an unexpected and welcome addition. The casual joint places seafood in a bar and grill setting, showcasing a daily list of available fresh fish and oysters. While the raw oysters could have used a bit more cleaning on the shuckers’ end, the quality was palpable and quite impressive considering the low-key atmosphere in which chicken tenders are on the menu.
5. Ocean Prime
When talking about oysters, it’s definitely necessary to tip your cap to Ocean Prime (4622 Pennsylvania Ave., Suite 300, KCMO, 816-600-0630, ocean-prime.com), a fine-dining chain that serves some of Kansas City’s most notable raw oysters.
With a focus on steaks, seafood and cocktails, Ocean Prime maintains its exclusive vibe with a pricey menu, dimly lit dining room and a few gimmicks. Dry ice was served along with the oysters, providing a smokey aesthetic that added some razzle dazzle. (The seafood towers are served with a larger, more awe-inspiring portion of dry ice.) There were only two types of oysters available, both perfectly fine—no fishy scent or pesky bits of sand lingering on the lip of the shells. Although I did miss the side of mignonette vinegar, Ocean Prime is an example of a large chain that has their processes of access and preparation down pat, creating a seamless execution for the customer.