That was my attempt at what New Orleanians call a “yat” accent. I know. Not very good was it.
In her book, New Orleans Cuisine: Fourteen Signature Dishes And Their Histories, Susan Tucker refers to Oysters Rockefeller as “the single greatest contribution of the United States to haute cuisine”.
I, on the other hand, think it may be “the second greatest contribution”. Because I think there’s an even better American oyster dish and I think one of the very best versions of that dish can be found, not in The Big Easy, but in my very own San Miguel de Allende.
I’m talking about Oysters Bienville and Hank’s.
The origin of the dish, like so many others, is as muddy as the Mississippi. Everyone agrees on New Orleans. Hardly anyone agrees on which restaurant? Most people give credit to Antoine’s. But Antoine’s gets credit for Oysters Rockefeller and to have two signature dishes would be greedy. Some say Commander’s Palace but not many. I like the story that credits Arnaud’s, perhaps for no other reason than the restaurant is on Bienville Street.
Interestingly it was Hank’s that reintroduced me to Oysters Bienville. I was sat at the bar eating Oysters Rockefeller when Bob Thieman, the grand knight of the round table, aka the high top in the corner, and the owner of San Miguel’s most successful bar walked by. “Do you like my Rockefeller?”, he asked with his always stern look. “If you do, you should try the Bienville. It’s even better.”
Bob Thieman was right. At 5:00 pm, there are not too many better places to be than with six Oysters Bienville and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, with Lou Rawls crooning out of the speakers, while perched on a stool at Hank’s. Unless maybe it’s two glasses of Sauvignon Blanc. And the next cut is from Otis Redding.
So what exactly is Oysters Bienville? Well it isn’t exactly anything. For it seems that every chef has their variations. The menu at Arnaud’s says they contain, “shrimp, mushrooms, green onions, herbs and seasonings in a white wine sauce”. Other recipes include bell peppers or crabmeat or bacon. I’ve tasted sherry and maybe brandy. Some people top them with breadcrumbs. Others, like Hank’s, decorate them with cheese.
No matter what’s in them, they are baked in the half shell for a few minutes then placed under the broiler for a minute or two to give them a George Hamilton tan.
Hank’s always superb waitstaff serves them with crackers (though I never understand why people eat crackers with baked oysters), limes and Hank’s own hot sauce (which should be avoided with Hank’s baked oysters but cherished with Hank’s raw oysters). The bivalves are served on rock salt as they should be. Which isn’t just for show. The salt helps retain the heat in the oysters.
Now people think that Oysters Bienville are a starter. But they’re not. They are actually a finisher. Because after you eat six, particularly the supersized ones at Hank’s, you’ll be as stuffed as a Thanksgiving turkey. In fact, if you’re Don Day’s Wife, after you order six, you will say, “I should have only ordered four”. But of course I never remind her of that or I wouldn’t get the other two.
So what makes Hank’s Oysters Bienville so good?
First it’s how they’re cooked. The oysters should be warmed. But absolutely never cooked. Hank’s timing is as precise as a Roman Catholic couple without children.
Second and most important is that buttery sauce, that very rich roux that makes me lift each oyster to my mouth and drain every last drop of juice. It’s a little bit Bechamel. It’s a little bit Meunière. But it’s really in a league of its own.
We were walking up Calle Jesus today. Making quick stops for miso at Luna de Queso and then around the corner for a couple of the French reds that are on special at La Europea when Don Day’s Wife said, “Why don’t we go to Hank’s for Oysters Bienville.”
”But it’s only 11:30”, I said.
“So we’ll walk slow”, she said.
If the world is my oyster, my universe is the Oysters Bienville at Hank’s.
You’ll find Hank’s New Orleans Cafe and Oyster Bar at Hidalgo #12 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.