By MATT GROSS
Consider the fried oyster. To snobs, it ranks far below oysters on the half shell, somewhere down the totem pole past oysters Rockefeller and oyster stew, the victim of a cooking technique fit only for bivalves of dubious provenance.
Fried oysters play starring roles only in a po’ boy, where the bread and remoulade further mask the flavor of mollusks that have had their unique molluskness cooked into oblivion.
Not so at the Chester Tavern. In this unprepossessing bar in South Bend (1005 West Robert Bush Drive, 360-875-5599), on Willapa Bay near the Washington coast, oysters are deep-fried with the kind of fanatical care you might expect in the self-proclaimed “oyster capital of the world.” (One in six oysters consumed in the United States come from the bay, according to the local Chamber of Commerce.)
No overbattered blobs here. The three-inch oysters — selected by the graders at the Coast Oyster plant — get a mere dusting of cornmeal and are fried in clean, unfiltered vegetable oil at 350 degrees, hot enough to seal in the sublime juices.
The result is sweet like corn bread, briny like the sea, creamy as a raw oyster and greaseless enough for even the calorie-concerned to down a dozen. Seven dollars buys six oysters with French fries, and $3 more gets the perfect chaser, a Fish Tale organic amber ale. For what may be the best fried oysters in the country, this is a bargain well worth the roughly two-hour drive from Seattle (or even a $318 round-trip flight from New York on JetBlue).
The genius behind the shell is Tim Sedgwick, who worked in the garment business in Seattle until 1994, when he bought the bar and began developing his oyster recipe. Oysters have since become the family business — Mr. Sedgwick’s daughter Amy was nominated for a regional Emmy for her public-television documentary “Shucks: An Oyster Story.”
Mr. Sedgwick is no monomaniac, however. Researching the history of the tavern, which dates from 1897, also occupies his time. A secret poker room once stood outside the building, he said, and big black-and-white photos over the pool tables show Oscar Chester, the original owner, who happened to be the town sheriff.
“He would go up into the hills and break up all of the moonshiners,” Mr. Sedgwick said. “And he himself had the biggest still up in the mountains! He’d break them up, and they’d have to come down to the Chester and drink.”
Of course, had Chester had Mr. Sedgwick’s oyster recipe, those moonshiners would have come anyway.