One night in January at Canis, a fine new restaurant on Queen West in Toronto, the evening specials included kusshi oysters on the half shell.
Kusshis are tumbled, deep cup Pacific oyster farmed in Deep Bay, on the East coast of Vancouver Island–and they are delicious. We ordered them. And they arrived at table drizzled with fermented radish vinaigrette, in wooden bowls filled not with ice, but with ice cold pebbles.
Three days later we found ourselves lunching at a small bistro hideaway in Yorkville called Chabrol. Starters included a half-dozen Green Gables on the half-shell. Green Gables are Crassostrea virginica–Eastern oysters–in this case from Malpeque Bay, PEI. Naturally, we ordered them–and they arrived with mignonette, on a metal tray filled with ice cold pebbles.
And this got us thinking. Obviously, raw oysters are best served chilled. And their shells need to be kept from rocking this way and that on the plate, if their delicious juices are not to spill. But until recent memory the vehicle deployed to advance that dual purpose was a bed of crushed ice. So what was up with all these pebbles?
The why was self-evident. A good supply of crushed ice requires a crushed ice machine, which costs good money to buy and run, and takes up valuable space that tiny restaurants like Canis and Charbrol can ill–afford. Pebbles could instead be stored in an existing freezer, with no extra costs incurred. This much was clear.
But where had this idea started? The obvious person to ask first was Patrick McMurray, one-time Guinness World Record–holding Galway Oyster and Seafood Festival shucking champion, and oyster expert-at-large. His Leslieville pub, The Céilí Cottage, also happened to be the first place we had seen oysters on a bed of pebbles, a couple of seasons back. So we popped down to ask if he happened to know who had come up with the idea.
“Well yes,” he said, from behind the shucking bar. “I did.”
But if you look hard enough you can find photos on Instagram and all over the Internet of other oyster bars stateside, serving oysters the same way.
“Yup,” McMurray concurred. “Because when the drought hit California a couple of years ago, I called my friends at L&E Oyster Bar [in L.A.] to tell how they could serve chilled oysters without using any water for ice…”
And it took off from there, gaining momentum as people realized that pebbles have an added benefit for the al fresco dining scene: they don’t melt in the sun, and so never betray the oysters they are charged with protecting by forcing them into a flavour-diluting swim. Which left just one question unanswered: where do you get the damn pebbles?
“They are lovingly hand chiselled from the Canadian Shield just outside of Bancroft,” McMurray replied. Then he leaned in low over the tray of half-eaten Raspberry Points, Lucky Limes and Caraquets sitting on the pebble-lined tray between us, and whispered, “Actually, from Dollarama!”