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Shell we?

Oyster bars cater to the tastes of mollusk-mad Bostonians

"Hmm, light-bodied, but a good hit of yeast, and a nice clean finish."

"Ooh, sweet and flirty; this one's a bit of a tart."

"Chewy, nutty on the tongue, then citrusy on the way down."

No, we're not talking about chardonnay; we're talking about mollusks. Take winespeak, add salt, and you get oysterspeak: melony, spicy, buttery, smoky, fungal. Not to mention appellations and harvests, provenance and terroir. We're out of the vineyard and into the estuary.

If you want to learn more, then you need to find an oyster bar - that is, heaps of oysters in sight, and a bar at which you sit and, ideally, watch your shellfish being shucked. There is a spare theatricality in the glittering ice, the piled, Gothic oysters, the shucker making passes with his blade. There shouldn't be many distractions - TVs are, frankly, wrong. This isn't a temple, but a form of devotion does takes place here. It has some of the casualness of an open kitchen, but without the clangor. Marble and tile are nice; their coolness matches the oysters'. At least this is one ideal, though perhaps not yours. But don't worry, we also got boisterous, we got glitzy.

A big part of the reason there is now a half-shell scene in Boston is simply that in New England we are surrounded by some of the best and best-known oysters there are - from Malpeques in the Canadian Maritimes to Wellfleets to bluepoints in Connecticut. It may have taken a while, but clearly our town - always seafood-happy, latterly sushi-crazed - is now oyster-struck. Kim Marden of Captain Marden's Seafoods, a wholesale and retail operation, saw his oyster sales triple in the last five years. Island Creek Oysters of Duxbury now sells 100,000 oysters a week.

So oysters are stars - once again; through their culinary history they have ranged in the popular taste from humble to raffish to deluxe. They currently appear on many fat-cat menus, but expense-account palaces aren't really the place to cultivate this taste. They serve good oysters, but usually only one variety, and you will pay a price that reflects not just quality but status as well; it's not hard to imagine a little Ralph Lauren logo on the shell of your $4 Wellfleet.

That's why you need an oyster bar. You save money on the mollusks, and an education comes with them. It's not surprising that many Bostonians' favorite is one or both of what we might call the Two Pearls - Neptune in the North End and B&G Oysters in the South End. At both, oysters are not an afterthought but how they identify themselves; Neptune, like B&G, has a full, interesting menu, but, as Jeff Nace says, "the idea is oyster bar." He's around Neptune, his "mom and pop shop," a lot. He and his wife and business partner, Kelli, live nearby with their young daughter, Ava; maybe that helps explain Neptune's hominess. They are usually opening a dozen varieties, and a customer-student at one of the 18 bar seats (this tiny spot seats 42 total) feels quite comfortable announcing, "I don't know too much about oysters - what's that one taste like?"

One night we had a plate of 18 that included, "clockwise from the lemons," the ubiquitous and consistently delicious Island Creeks, Dennisports, Bee's Rivers, all from Massachusetts; Rome Points from Rhode Island; brawny bluepoints from Connecticut; and Kumamotos, the jewel-like West Coaster whose finish might have been concocted by Chanel.

Like Neptune, B&G is intimate in size - four dozen seats altogether, 20 at the bar, six of them in front of the shucking station - and offers about a dozen varieties, mostly from the East Coast, on a rotating list of about three dozen. While no single restaurateur is responsible for our oyster renaissance, the opening of B&G in 2003 was a big media moment for the mollusks, partly because of owner Barbara Lynch's sheer star power. B&G staffers deliver helpful information without pretension. They may make you feel cool enough to drop an adjective or two yourself. "Steaky" is how we would describe our PEI Small Choices (actually, "steak-tartarey"; well, really "sirloin-tartarey"), which we enjoyed along with Taunton Bays from Maine and Tatamagouches from Nova Scotia.

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For one oestraphile, the ideal company might be only oneself and, three seats away, the ghost of James Beard - that would be B&G on a Monday at about 5 p.m., before the rush begins. For another eater, a community of fellow appetites compounds the enjoyment - and that would be Jasper White's Summer Shack in Back Bay, located above a bowling alley, with slaphappy pop-nautical decor. TVs are sprinkled throughout (sound off, thank goodness). Oh dear.

But the oysters themselves are superb, and the selection varied. They taste boomingly fresh. Our dozen included mild but luscious Ninigrets with a rich dairy finish and Moonstones (from Rhode Island, like the Ninigrets) with flavors as deep as, um, Point Judith Pond, where they grow. The octagonal bar's size - 25 stools - gives you more hope of snagging a seat. We eavesdropped as our bartender helped a newbie decide on an introductory half-dozen, and she was articulate with us discussing her personal favorites. The raw bar items are stored in a handsome set of glass-fronted lockers visible behind the shucking station. It's just a shame there aren't stools there to watch the show.

You cannot top these three spots for mollusk-based fun, but these days, there are plenty of other rounds to make. The Cambridge Summer Shack has slightly fewer varieties, but the raw bar is tucked away in a corner of the big barny room. It's not exactly a cloister, but it's less dizzying than the Boston venue. The fun, revved-up East Coast Grill & Raw Bar in Inman Square, Cambridge, has a good-sized bar, though it's darned difficult to get a seat at the little stretch in front of the shucker. A specialty drink list includes a half-dozen margaritas, which is owner Chris Schlesinger's favorite accompaniment to oysters.

There's the bar at the Union Oyster House, of course, as there has been since 1826. The other night, they were opening Island Creeks, bluepoints, and Gerrish Islands from Maine. This is much too handsome a venue and the prices far too good a deal to leave just to the tourists.

Chain operations are by no means a drawback when it comes to oysters. Remember, you are not chef-chasing; the oysters have already done all the work. Legal Sea Foods, McCormick and Schmick's, and Skipjack's all have good oysters at good prices.

Kingfish Hall, in the Faneuil Marketplace, is glam and pricey but has an immense bar with a dozen seats in front of the raw-bar station. This may be the best shucking show in town; thanks to a tilted mirror, you can watch the guys' hands at work even when they have their backs to you.

Why are oysters now our darlings? Oyster aquaculture has been developing on these shores for the past couple of decades. Skip Bennett of Island Creek Oysters has a supply-side take: that the quality and consistent supply of farmed oysters has restored what he thinks was a perennial, unaddressed appetite - "Farming has brought oysters back."

The vagaries of taste are baffling, but Rowan Jacobsen, in "A Geography of Oysters," says that sushi interest often paves the way for oysters (see related story). Brian Flagg, executive chef of Summer Shack, says customer appreciation drives not only volume but variety, as fans move beyond "comfort zone" oysters, familiar names like bluepoints and Pemaquids, to more exotic choices.

Who exactly is eating all these oysters is not so clear. Nobody we spoke to says it's a male-dominated taste, as one might expect. Jim O'Brien, of bustling Jake's Seafood Restaurant & Market in Hull, says younger customers are more apt to try oysters. But Lynn Mumma of the Oyster Company restaurant and raw bar in Dennisport says she has customers who first try an oyster in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and then "can't get enough of them."

You could certainly save a lot of dough if you never ate that first oyster. An area wholesaler says that he gets 80 cents to $1 per oyster from restaurants. Using that as a gauge, an oyster bar that charges you $2.25 (on a $1 item, that's a 125 percent markup) is not remotely gouging. Yet you don't want oysters just on special occasions. Sometimes you want to feast on a dozen, or even two, and not feel the pinch.

Unlike, say, Seattle or New York, Boston lacks a real stratum of oyster happy hours and casual oyster bars. Still, there are some deals to be found.

Improbably, the fashionable South End is home to perhaps our most enduring oyster bargain. It's at the 28 Degrees happy hour, when Island Creeks are $1 apiece early in the evening. They've been doing this since they opened two years ago, to get "neighborhood people to come in," says event coordinator Indus Johnson, and they've won a crowd.

Tuesdays, a terrific primer course is offered at the bar in McCormick & Schmick's, when a half-dozen varieties are $1 apiece. The shucker does her work at one end of the bar, and you can pull up a stool. There is no other venue around here that offers this variety at this low a price.

It can pay to head out of the city, to see how the other half shell lives. At Jake's Seafood in Hull, they are $1.75, a deal for the excellent Glidden Points we downed.

Going even farther, there's the Cape, of course. The Oyster Company in Dennisport has probably the best oyster bargain in Massachusetts: 95 cents apiece every day for four hours. One of the owners has his own oyster grounds, so you'll see his Quivet Necks on the menu, along with Wellfleets, Bee's Rivers from Eastham, and some non-Massachusetts varieties. They have a serpentine zinc-topped bar, and they're shucking all winter.

This time of year, the oysters are growing plumper and sweeter. Whether they'll seem buttery or smoky or nutty to you is, as with wine, a matter of native discernment and tasting experience. The more you sample and ponder, the better you'll sort out your own impressions of mineral and metal, fruit and meat and brine - the crashing breaker of flavors that is in each oyster.

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