As I sit and sip my glass of Muscadet and prepare to slurp my first oyster, the smell of carnitas faintly wafts through the air toward my perch at the counter of the new Oyster Gourmet in Grand Central Market. Once I'm done here, I resolve to go get myself a $3 pile of pig.
The fancification of Grand Central Market is old news, of course. You can now get sustainable meat, upscale cheeses, cold-pressed juice and high-end coffee drinks there. But even with all of these options, the Oyster Gourmet is the first food-service counter to offer luxury in lunch form. In my 20 minutes at the kiosk, I spent more than $40 on six oysters, a glass of wine and a small plate of tuna poke. It would be near impossible to do that anywhere else in the market.
This isn't a dig at the Oyster Gourmet. There aren't enough places to grab some oysters and a glass of wine in L.A., even fewer where it feels casual and fun and easy. Oysters aren't cheap, and they're not supposed to be. But where other new vendors at Grand Central Market have offered high-quality but casual and affordable prepared food, the Oyster Gourmet is the first outlet to go truly upscale. And it's not going to be the last. Longtime Campanile chef Mark Peel is set to open a stand in Grand Central Market, oddly also offering oysters and seafood.
The Oyster Gourmet comes to us from Christophe Happillon, whom I recognized from his stand at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, where he's been shucking oysters for years. He's also well known as a fixture in many L.A. restaurants (including Joe's Restaurant and Maison Giraud), where he conducts oyster pop-up nights.
The most striking thing about the circular stand is undoubtedly its amazing design, an opening and closing set of canvas wings that make the place a functioning art piece evoking a flower and a shell and a flying machine from a weird Japanese animated film. (See photos here.)
Each day, the stand offers about five oyster varieties, and you get three oysters for $9 or six for $16. The chef chooses which oysters you get — on a plate of six, I got three varieties. There are also a few seafood dishes, mainly raw. I ordered the $9.99 tuna poke, which was chopped fresh by Happillon and lightly seasoned with sesame and acid. It was served on a scallop shell with adorable vintage flatware.
The wines are all French, and the pours are very small. It's still a little confusing how the whole thing works. First I sat, then I was told to stand and look at the blackboard menu, then I went to the cash register to try to order, then they told me to sit again. My advice is to figure out what you want, then sit. They'll come to you. You can order to-go from the register.
And, as it turns out, wine and oysters are a very good appetizer for $3 carnitas.