'Seas' the oyster varieties at Oyster Bah in Chicago
"American oysters differ as much as American people," wrote M.F.K. Fisher in Consider the Oyster (1941).
There's the plump Pickering Pass from Washington's State, the petite Crowe's Pasture from Massachusetts, briny East Beach Blondes from Rhode Island and Long Island Sound's substantial Naked Cowboy. In all, North America is home to more than 300 oyster varieties, from Apalachicola to Zen, growing from their mother's several million eggs to spat (baby oyster) to full-grown bivalve in reefs, bays and farms from British Columbia to the Gulf of Mexico.
And not one of them is Chicagoan.
Many readers of "Good Wine" remember when oysters in Illinois meant frozen, canned or Blue Point reserved for swanky evenings at exclusive clubs and dining emporia.
Then, in 1985, came Shaw's Crab House to Chicago, and since to Schaumburg, revolutionizing our dining scene with international seafood flown fresh to Chicago daily, offered in the white table clothed main dining room and casual Oyster Bar, paired with a carefully-selected and appealing wine list. Since then, Shaw's has sourced, sucked and served more than 14-million members of the superfamily Ostreoidea.
These folks know from oysters.
Now, Shaw's has focused their expertise on these "lusty bits of nourishment" (again from Fisher) in a sister restaurant, Oyster Bah in Chicago.
Sure, the nautical decoration and caricature of a Downeaster's accent ('bah' for bar) is part of the concept dining that helped make parent company Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises one of the world's most popular restaurant groups.
But it's not kitsch that carries Oyster Bah.
Oyster Bah offers 12 fresh oyster varieties, flown into Chicago daily, to be mixed and matched with a full beverage program, including a 30-selection wine list, all available by the glass, ranging from Flower and the Bee's Treixadura ($10 per glass; See "Ross's Choice') to Evesham Wood's Pinot Noir ($20 per glass.)
"We sell wines from every single bottle every single day," says General Manager Rosemary Waldmeier happily.
Forever the classicist, I opted for France's Sancerre (produced by Roger Neveau, $15 per glass). This 100 percent sauvignon blanc, grown along the Loire -- France's longest river -- brought vivacious herbal flavors and brisk acidity to frame the plump texture and rich flavors of Hammersley Inlet oysters. Another classic combination is the Loire's Muscadet (Louis Metaireau, $14 per glass), with its seaside tang to complement an oyster's minerality.
Along with tried-and-true oyster pairings, Oyster Bah offers new taste sensations with well-known labels (Rombauer chardonnay, $22 per glass) and small producers from Austria to New Zealand. Wine Director Ned Redner highlights whites with bright acid and dynamic minerality to accent and echo seafood flavors, steering clear of high alcohol and oak.
"We love it that our guests can totally geek out on pairing wine with oysters, just like we do at staff meetings," laughs Waldmeier.
Server Sarah expertly expanded my comfort zone, recommending a rosé (Jolie Folle, $10 per glass) with delicate strawberry flavors to round out the saline edges of La St. Simons and other East Coast oysters.
Only the pesky limitations of time and sobriety kept me from adding a Greek Assyritiko (Argyros, $15 per glass) and an Austrian Gruner Veltliner (Knoll, $14 per glass) to the table, along with Spain's red Tempranillo (Lopez de Heredia, $18 per glass). Yes, for die-hard red wines lovers, Oyster Bah offers a selection including Cabernet, Pinot Noir and other internationals reds.
If "kissing the sea on the lips" (as poet Leon-Paul Fargue described oyster eating) doesn't appeal, Oyster Bah also offers a range of seafood, salads and a burger.
Contact Oyster Bah at (773) 248-3000 for reservations and information about daily oyster discounts and Monday wine specials.
And to know who you're slurping and sitting next to (a Connoisseur? A Wild One?), visit Rowan Jacobsen "What Kind of Oyster Eater Are You?" at http://www.oysterguide.com/.
• Write to Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at food@daily herald.com.
Region: Ribeiro, Spain
Producer: The Flower and the Bee
Availability: $17 at wine boutiques & select Whole Foods Markets
Distributed by: Terraneo Wine Merchants, Lincolnwood
Spain celebrates the longest coastline in Europe by producing light, dry, unoaked & minerally whites to pair with the daily catch from around the world. Treixadura (trej-ah-DUR-ah) grows almost exclusively in Spain's cool northwest corner. This example is texturous on the palate, with lime, apple and zesty flavors and delicate hint of sweetness. Serve as a satisfying, unique cocktail & complement to all pintxos (the region's interpretation of tapas), salads and seafood.