"You are what you eat" certainly applies to oysters. Since oysters eat by extracting food from the water that filters through their shells, their taste is greatly affected by their living conditions. And since oysters must be kept alive from harvest to table, it supremely important to trust your oyster retailer.
With that in mind, we visited four restaurants that tout their oysters. The oysters available will vary day-to-day so you can't necessarily look for a specific oyster. Over the course of an afternoon we sampled 21 different oysters with only two duplicate offerings: Kumamoto and Spring Creek. We tasted both west coast and east coast oysters. In general I preferred the west coast oysters because they were less salty and had a subtler taste profile.
It seems that I've been exposed more often to east coast oysters. As a result, they taste more like what I expect an oyster to taste like. But after taking the time to taste a variety of oysters, the west coast are essential because they offer a greater variety of tastes and textures than the east coast. In this sense, I'd suggest getting one or two oysters from the east coast and then focusing on the west.
Shaw's Oyster Bar, 21 E. Hubbard
$30 per dozen ($2.50 each)
Shaw's offered 12 different oysters at its Oyster Bar, 6 from the west coast and 6 from the east coast. The waiter told us that the first 6 on the list were the chef's top recommendations so we went with them: Matunuck (Rhode Island), Treasure Island (Puget Sound, WA), Onset (Onset, Massachusetts), Northern Cross (Ballard Point, Virginia), Effingham Inlet (Vancouver Island, BC), Spring Creek (Barnstable Harbor, Massachusetts).
My favorite of the six was the Effingham Inlet; it was very flavorful without being too strong or too salty. My least favorite was the Spring Creek, which I found to be too acidic and too strong tasting.
The Treasure Island was also notable for a great mouth feel and subtle flavor range. Shaw's is certainly a great iconic Chicago interior that is worth the trip if, for nothing else, to savor what the city once was and continues to be in isolated pockets across its landscape.
GT Fish & Oyster, 531 N. Wells
6 oysters on offer, $2.25 to $3.25 each
This was my favorite spot of the day overall. Each oyster was good and each had a different flavor profile. We sampled three from the west coast: Kumamoto (California, $3.25), Penn Cove (Washington, $2.50), Shigoku (Washington, $3.25), and three from the east coast: Blue Point (Connecticut, $3.00), Saltworks Seaside (Virginia, $2.50), Village Bay (New Brunswick, $2.75)
My favorite was the Kumamoto, which was flavorful with a pleasant after-taste. My second favorite was the Shigoku, which was plump, firm, with a great mouth feel and a pleasant taste.
The atmosphere was the first contrast with Shaw's. Instead of walking into a dimly light interior of iconic old-Chicago, we passed through a series of glass walls into a bright contemporary interior decorated with nautical antiques.
Devon Seafood Grill, 39 E. Chicago Avenue
3 oysters on offer, $2.50, $3.00 each
Although the oysters here were O.K., they didn't compare to the other spots we visited. We sampled the Delaware Bay (Delaware, $2.50), Powder Point (Massachusetts, $3.00), and Dabob Bay (Washington, $2.50). The only oyster I truly enjoyed was the Dabob Bay. The Powder Point was too salty and the Delaware Bay was watery.
Publican, 837 W. Fulton Market
9 oysters on offer, $30/dozen for chef's selection; $3 each a la carte
The waitress suggested that we let the chef select his six favorites of the nine on offer, which we were happy to do. We sampled 3 west coast oysters: Otter Cove (Puget Sound, WA), Sea Cow (Hama Hama River, WA), Kumamoto (Humboldt Bay, CA), and 3 east coast oysters: Blackberry Point (Prince Edward Island, Canada), Raspberry Point (Prince Edward Island, Canada), and Spring Creek (Barnstable, MA).
There was not one oyster among these that I disliked. My two favorites were Sea Cow, with a citrusy, fresh taste, and Kumamoto, which tasted "of the sea" but not fishy.
GT Fish & Oyster and Publican were almost exactly on par with each other. The Sea Cow was the most unique oyster that I tasted all day. It was bright, fresh, and filled with citrus undertones. The selection and sequencing of the oysters was very skillful. Ending with the Spring Creek was a nice conclusion. Interesting to note that, unlike the oyster from Spring Creek at Shaw's, this Spring Creek oyster was very mild and far less salty.
If making a choice between Publican and GT, I'd lean towards Publican, not because of a difference in the quality of the oysters, but because of the exceptional beer that our waitress paired with our oyster flight and the absolutely wonderful French fries that surpassed those paired with our flight at GT.