We were planning to take the train from Paris to Normandy to eat oysters -- a pilgrimage my friend Marie Aimee, a lifelong Parisian, makes every year when the weather turns. She rides to Trouville, walks around, eats oysters, then takes the train home. On the day we chose, however, the weather turned rather too much -- the radio warned of gale-force winds in the north of France, and advised people headed in that direction to stay home.
So we went to eat oysters in Paris, instead. Marie Aimee made reservations at Le Dome in Montparnasse, which surprised me. Le Dome, not known for haute cuisine, is legendary as a hangout of Hemingway and other expats; I had summarily dismissed it as an Americanized tourist trap. But Marie Aimee clearly did not share my prejudice.
Le Dome, as it happens, has its own poissonnerie, or fish store; it is exactly the type of place to which those top-quality oysters, mined in the north, are sent. The restaurant itself has the warmth of the seasoned, varnished wood one finds in the paneling of great old yachts -- though there is nothing else nautical about it. We were led up a few steps to a snug section with a great view of the restaurant: of the bar with its huge vat of iced champagne and crystal flutes; of the station where bouillabaisse is assembled; of the counter where desserts are cut; and we had a bird‘s-eye view of our fellow customers, who included chic Parisians, provincial French visitors, American tourists and businessmen, and a large number of Japanese who, it must be said, are veteran connoisseurs of fresh raw fish.
There is a ritual to eating oysters in France, a time-proven process that seems specifically designed to produce a sense of well-being. The huitres menu includes huge seafood platters, great mounds of seaweed and ice on which assorted fruits de mer (shellfish -- mussels, clams, crab) are wantonly heaped. We were rather more single-minded and, agreeing we preferred the smaller oysters, placed our order, guided by Marie Aimee’s axiom that each person must have at least one dozen apiece.
The waiter -- in black tails and black bow tie -- brought us a bowl of sea snails and a small cork studded with what looked like large dressmaker pins. We dug out the coiled, chewy, salty periwinkles with the pins. Then came slabs of lightly salted butter and stacks of small brown bread slices on a plate with lemon halves, over which was placed a wire structure to hold the oyster platter. We ate bread and butter until the oysters arrived, then set to work on the main task of the evening.
We sucked little boudeuses de Bretagne from their frilly shells; these are served in orders of 12 because they are so small. ”In France, when a child is stubbornly immature and refuses to grow up,“ said Marie Aimee, ”they are called a boudeuse, after this oyster.“ We ate the larger, flat, fan-shaped, brown cancales, a sweet and mild and chewy oyster from the English Channel; and then the queen of oysters, the rounder, even milder, softer, Atlantic-grown belons. There was no cocktail sauce, no champagne-based mignonette, nothing but fresh lemon to come between our taste buds and the oysters.
We sampled small Atlantic claires, and the rarer, stronger, large pousse en claire, an antisocial oyster whose beds are famously sparsely populated, what with one oyster housed per every three square meters. Butterfly-shaped papillons were small and plump, perfect mouthfuls of the cold Atlantic. For variation, we split an order of praires, a thick-shelled, toothsome, good-sized, big-flavored clam.
For dessert, I had a bowl of raspberries that bear little or no resemblance to the tiny sour fruits found in California; they were large, robust, uniformly sweet and flavorful. The French eat them not with cream, but with plain old white granulated sugar -- to my mind unnecessary, but it does add a good grainy crunch, releases the juices and really amps the flavor. We also had roasted figs and a dark-chocolate mousse with an orange coulis -- one dessert for each person.
A certain benign euphoria descended on us. The warm, glowing wood of the room, the sparkle, the clink of glasses and soft clatter of cutlery, the hum of conversation, a bellyful of oysters -- human needs were attended to with a subtle, unspoken precision as only the French know how to do. Marie Aimee claims that oysters and chocolate are two of her best defenses against the dread and despair of the cold, damp Parisian winters.
Los Angeles has its own oyster bars -- though none with the history and precisely calibrated pleasure rituals of Le Dome. Still, I‘ll cozy up to the bar at the Water Grill, whose chef, Michael Cimarusti, knows more about oysters than anybody I’ve ever talked to. Cimarusti told me, for example, why the Fines de Claire oysters have a lip of green: It‘s residue of the algae in the Claire Canal, where they’re raised. And he definitively explained why oysters are best in the winter months: because the little mollusks spawn in the summer, in the ”r-less“ months of May, June, July and August. Come fall, the water cools, and they plump up again.
Of course, we eat oysters year round now (even the French do), but the best summer oysters come from the cold waters in the far north, and from the winter waters in the southern hemisphere -- from Chile and New Zealand. Cimarusti‘s personal favorite?The diver-harvested belons he imports from Maine -- big crisp oysters with a metallic tang that are not for the faint of heart. ”They don’t just slide down your throat,“ Cimarusti says with relish. ”You actually have to chew them.“
544 S. Grand Ave., downtown; (213) 891-0900. Lunch and dinner Mon.--Fri. 11:30 a.m.--9 p.m.; Sat.--Sun., dinner only, 5--9 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Entrees $21--$38.