I spend most of my time conducting coffee tastings, researching coffees, or thinking about tasting coffee. I relate everything I smell or eat back to coffee in some way.
When I smell or taste something new, memory connects to my past experiences and creates a deeper understanding of what I’m tasting. That time I tried lulo in a crowded South American market filled with the heady smells of ripe fruit, when I tasted mora in a tiny town high in the Venezuelan mountains, the memories of maple syrup on my pancakes as a child and my mom’s cinnamon buns in the oven…all those contribute to the memories I can draw on when tasting coffee.
However, I never thought that I could apply a similar process to oysters.
(Of course, I’m not saying that oysters can taste like my mom’s cinnamon buns.)
But a tasting, whether it’s coffee or oysters, depends on memories of what you’ve bounced around your palate in the past. I had the chance to apply it to oysters when Jair Melo invited the Flavors of Bogota team to an oyster tasting at his newly opened Exxus restaurant in Chapinero Alto.
Here was my chance to learn more about oysters. I’ve been in Latin American for over twenty years and haven’t come across many oysters I’d want to slurp down, fearing all sorts of problems in the hot and humid weather in the tropics. But I trust Jair and his team. Why?
Exxus and oysters
I trust the team at Exxus not only for their excellent reputation in the local restaurant industry, but for their years of experience. Jair starting working with shellfish 37 years ago. He opened the first Exxus location in 1999, so he has been cultivating his restaurant expertise for almost 20 years. They recently opened their new spot in Chapinero Alto and the decor is simple and straightforward, like a good oyster should be. Exposed brick walls, bare light bulbs, and an outside vertical garden all let you know you’re in Bogota.
Exxus is a family business. You’ve got Jair at the head as chef and owner, while Leandro, the oldest son, is a sommelier and tasting expert. Andrea, Leandro’s wife, works in business administration and makes a gracious hostess. Fernando, Jair’s other son, works in the store and restaurant at the Calle 116 location.
Why do they bring oysters from the United States?
One of the first questions you’ll have, of course, is where these oysters come from. Jair serves the best in quality and freshness, and that’s why he’s working with a company that can provide both: Taylor Shellfish Farms, a U.S. company. The history of Taylor Shellfish goes back far – five generations of Taylors have been working with shellfish since 1890.
They take advantage of the particular conditions in the Puget Sound, where they find healthier waters (virus lurks in polluted water), proper temperature (cold water is important to oysters), and the right salinity. This watery terroir of the Pacific Northwest makes these oysters outstanding.
Oyster tasting in Bogota
What’s an oyster tasting? An oyster tasting is a lineup of several oysters – in our case, six – that have different characteristics. By comparing one oyster to another, you can understand the differences in flavors and textures.
Exxus works with eight varieties of oysters, although the oyster bar generally has six oysters on hand at any given time, which is an amazing variety to find here in Bogota.
Keep in mind that you’ll want to taste oysters in a specific order. Just as you wouldn’t drink a red wine and follow it with a delicate white, the same goes for oysters. Start with those that have more delicate flavors and then move on to meatier textures and deeper flavors.
These are the oysters we tried, in order of appearance:
Pacific oyster (Totten Inlet). If I got the details right, Leandro explained that these oysters are sent to Hawaii for a while in their growing period to fatten up. (Just like many Americans on vacation, but this is a good thing for oysters.) This oyster had a delicate flavor but good mouth-feel. The black lips mean they haven’t been exposed to sunlight, since they’re cultivated deeper at sea.
Just a few drops of hot Chipotle oil on this plump oyster and it was ready to be slurped. Don’t pour out the liquor that’s in the shell – it’s an important part of the tasting. Just slurp it all in, chew or swallow as you please, and focus on the taste sensations.
Gran Cru. Two drops of lemon accentuate the fruity aspects of this oyster. Melon. Pine. Minerals, reminiscent of limestone.
Virginica (Totten Inlet). This seasonal oyster is not easy to find in Colombia. In fact, Exxus got in just 240 of them and they won’t get more in. These have a definite mineral taste, similar to European oysters, with a hint of seaweed. Shallow shells mean less meat but deeper flavors. Try it in its naked glory, though a few drops of lime juice are allowed.
Fat Bastard (Samish Bay). These deep-shelled oysters got a few drops of lime to accentuate the lychee and cucumber tastes.
Then we moved onto Jair’s favorite, Shigoku. This oyster was developed by Taylor Shellfish and was made available to the public in 2009. From Willapa Bay, these small oysters are always in contact with water as they develop. Don’t add anything, try them bare and beautiful. Close your eyes and slurp, and again notice an inclination towards cucumber and lychee.
We finished with Kumamoto (Oakland Bay). Originally from Japan, these oysters are now cultivated in the Pacific waters of the United States. They’re popular because of their mild but attractive flavor. That’s why they’re called the “Chardonnay of oysters” by The Oyster Guide, because they’re fruity and sweet. They have distinctive, deep fluted shells. We also had it in its naked glory, nothing on it. Close your eyes and think butter and hazelnuts. Yes, a creamy and nutty oyster. One to remember. Read more about them at Chef’s Resources.
Wine pairing with oysters
With the mild tasting notes that we’ve mentioned so far – cucumber, lychee, melon – you can understand why Leandro told us that you must choose your wine carefully. You don’t want anything with harsh tannins. Or anything that’s been close to a barrel, since those wood notes will overpower the delicate oyster.
So stay away from heavy wines, which is why the suggestions generally run to whites. Think fruity, refreshing, bright, mineral-focused wines. If you want to do some more reading about wines and oysters, check out what Serious Eats and Eater have to say about the subject. If you don’t want to suffer reading about wines that may or may not be available in Bogota, simply ask Leandro what he recommends – an expert sommelier, he’s chosen the wine (and beer) list at Exxus to pair with oysters.
Of course, Exxus does have other items on their menu that don’t have to do with oysters. We had Garato, grouper with lime zest and dill, daikon in spaghetti-like strips. Sweet and savory, with a bite of citrus and the depth of Togarashi-infused oil.
Then the Flavors of Bogota team nibbled on Tuna Tataki. Thinly sliced tender tuna, a beautiful deep pink, with a texture almost like meat (but not chewy). Just a touch of sauce gave it both sweet and savory notes: teriyaki, soy, Sriracha, cilantro and grapefruit, onion and Hass avocado play with your taste buds in this dish.
Caldereta. Creamy deep red seafood bisque with prawns, mussels, sea bass, shrimp, lime, red curry, orellana mushrooms, heirloom tomatoes, and coconut milk added at the end. Served with jasmine rice. This was fantastic. We will be back for it. Soon.
Tumaco soup is based on how the fishermen in that area of Colombia often prefer their soup – with corn and fish and shrimp – but Exxus adds yellow curry.
Crustanorte. Crab, bisque, butter, herbs and cheese stuffed into scallop shells and roasted on a bed of rice. (Yes, you can eat the crunchy bed of rice, which is quite similar to cucayo or pegao). Delicious, an easy dish to share with friends if you’re not the greedy kind.
Besides fish, they have organic chicken with herbs or Argentine steak with chimichurri and papas nativas. Would you go to an oyster tasting with a vegetarian? No, right? But Exxus can design vegetable plates, salads, or rice dishes, and they do have a tomato soup.
As with most everything else in Bogota, you can also get the oyster bar delivered to your home. Just call to request home or office delivery, in a polystyrene (styrofoam) box with ice.
What it will cost you
Single oyster: COP$10,000-14,000
Half dozen: COP$74,000
Main dishes: COP$29,000-46,000
Startled by the price of the oysters? Are you wishing you were at a $1 oyster bar in the States? Remember that these little beings take years to grow to market size, then are carefully shipped all the way here to Bogota in still-fresh condition. Here in Bogota they’re not the price they would be in some parts of the United States or Europe, but the fact we can get good oysters at all in these mountains far from the sea is amazing.
Carrera 4 #58-90
Av. Calle 116 # 71 – 39