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Flavors: To Chew or Not to Chew Oysters: Discover the Answer at The Granary

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Stella Fong
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Yellowstone Public Radio
Executive Chef Oscar Dorantes stands at the oyster/seafood bar with a tray of freshly shucked oysters at The Granary.

To chew or not to chew — that is the question for savoring raw oysters.

At The Granary, located across the street from Rocky Mountain College in Billings, is a fresh seafood bar featuring oysters where this question can be answered. Tucked into an intimate nook behind the main bar, fresh oysters procured from farms on the East and West Coasts, and freshly cooked crab and lobster are bringing flavors of the sea to this land-locked hideout. Just mosey up to the new white granite bar showcasing fresh oysters and seafood and get the answer firsthand by ordering up some oysters.

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Stella Fong
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Oyster Shucker Charlotte Bradshaw shows off a fresh cooked lobster offered at the oyster/seafood bar at The Granary.

“I definitely wouldn’t chew it,” Executive Chef Oscar Dorantes says of eating an oyster. “I think the best way to is to garnish it to your liking and then, straight down the hatch.”

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Stella Fong
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Executive Chef Oscar Dorantes holds a tray of fresh shucked oysters highlighting a Blue Point oyster with golden caviar accompanied with condiments.

On the other hand, Seafoods of the World general manager Taylor Leuthold, who supplies The Granary daily with fresh oysters, says you're supposed to chew the savory mollusks.

"That is how you get the flavor in, so you should be tipping the oyster into your mouth with that liqueur, taking a bite and breathing in," Lethold said. "That’s going to allow all your senses to pick up on the different notes of the oyster.”

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Stella Fong
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In shucking oysters, while holding the oyster cup side down with the flat side up, insert a knife into the hinged area and severe the abductor muscle.

Rick Larson and his family, who also own Buffalo Block at The Rex, purchased The Granary to remodel it to be an eatery offering fresh seafood. The former steak-centric restaurant now serves Mediterranean-inspired cuisine along with other world flavors. The refurbished interior pays homage to the landmark, which once housed the milling department for the Polytechnic Institute. From 1925 until World War II, flour and cereal were processed at the site. The space remained vacant until 1976 when John Petersen purchased the building and converted it to a steakhouse he then managed for the next 28 years.

In 2004, Aaron Sparboe and John Scott took ownership of the restaurant with Allen Sparboe heading up the kitchen, continuing the steakhouse offerings. A decade later, the restaurant changed hands to Jim and Kevin Bos. The father and son team renamed the restaurant to Bistecca at the Granary, using the word for steak in Italian.

The recent remodel pays incorporates rough-cut timbers with accents of steel hinting at bygone times, juxtaposed next to modern porcelain and glass tiles. White herringbone patterned tile glistens from the backdrop of the bar, now expanded into the dining room to accommodate the demand for more informal dining and drinking.

General manager Mitch Fox says he wants the diner to experience "a feeling of being somewhere else" and to “step into a restaurant that is on the coast, step into somewhere that feels like you are not necessarily in Billings, Montana.”

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Stella Fong
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In this platter of freshly shucked oysters on ice are accompaniments: mignonette, grated horseradish and cocktail sauce. The oysters glisten, smell fresh and are floating in liqueur.

Fox explains the general difference between East and West coast oysters as the East Coast variety are “sub-tidally farmed so they’re always under water,” while West Coast species are “farmed intertidally so when the tide goes out, they are exposed.”

Basically, West Coast oysters must work harder for their survival, having to adjust to the changing tidal conditions. As a result, in general, oysters from the East Coast tend to be salty and briny, while the West Coast version is sweeter with richer notes.

Oysters are bivalves, a name for marine and freshwater mollusks that have laterally compressed bodies enclosed by a shell, consisting of two hinged parts. Oysters use their gills and cilia to process water and feed. This is why it is important that they live in clean waters. Most of oysters found at raw bars come from farms.

Chef Dorantes, who grew up in San Diego, recalls fond times with his uncle buying oysters at Huntington Beach.

“We would pick up oysters on the way and sit there on the beach shucking oysters with lemon and hot sauce, and just make myself sick from eating too many," he said.

Dorantes and a friend first came to Glasgow, Montana.

“We spent the summer there and didn’t realize how snowy it would be,” Dorantes admitted. After the snow thawed, he made his way to Billings.

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Stella Fong
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General Manager Mitch Fox stands by the newly expanded bar and updated beer tap and logo.

On this night of our interview, Chef brings out three types of oysters: Chelsea Gem, Hood Canal and Blue Point adorned with caviar and yogurt. The Chelsea Gem, from Washington, is mild with touches of minerality, while the Hood Canal, also from the Evergreen State, is light and yet toothsome with a melon finish.

The Blue Point from Connecticut, paired with a dollop of Dutch Golden Osetra Caviar, highlighted the salinity, with the yogurt balancing the flavors. The nutty flavor of the caviar along with its popping firmness contributed another layer of flavor and texture to the experience.

The shucked oysters are served on ice accompanied with slices of lemon; a mignonette made with vinegar, lemon juice and chopped shallots; a cocktail sauce, grated horseradish or hot sauce.

For a beverage, Fox recommends partnering raw oysters with a sparkling wine, a clean high-quality vodka or sake — drinks that are clean and straightforward in flavor profile so as to not interfere with the natural qualities of the oysters.

Now, one just needs to discover whether to chew or not to chew when enjoying oysters.

Stella Fong shares her personal love of food and wine through her cooking classes and wine seminars as well as through her contributions to Yellowstone Valley Woman, and Last Best News and The Last Best Plates blogs. Her first book, Historic Restaurants of Billings hit the shelves in November of 2015 with Billings Food available in the summer of 2016. After receiving her Certified Wine Professional certification from the Culinary Institute of America with the assistance of a Robert Parker Scholarship for continuing studies, she has taught the Wine Studies programs for Montana State University Billings Wine and Food Festival since 2008. She has instructed on the West Coast for cooking schools such as Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma, Macy’s Cellars, and Gelsons, and in Billings, at the Billings Depot, Copper Colander, Wellness Center, the YMCA and the YWCA. Locally she has collaborated with Raghavan Iyer and Christy Rost in teaching classes.