Charlize Theron has eaten them. So have Matt Damon and Bobby Flay and hundreds of other not so well-known foodies—some making regular pilgrimages from New Jersey— who have heard about Chef Dominic Martinez's smoked oysters at Desnuda in New York City.
“This is the place where you come to seal the deal or get the girl,” Martinez says, as he dims the lights, adjusts the music from prep work rock to go-time boleros and son, and takes care of last minute details before he starts another busy night at the 17-seat restaurant that doesn't even have a kitchen.
If that sounds like a not-so-modest humble brag, it's not. It's just the truth. And Martinez, a SoCal transplant who insists he'll never leave New York “because people are just honest here,” seems to have his character dialed to a single default setting: direct. Martinez, who created the recipe for the lapsang souchong-smoked oysters that have been consistent crowd pleasers since he opened Desnuda in the East Village in 2008 knows one thing for sure— these oysters are impressive and they're damn good.
They're also surprisingly simple to make. The most challenging part of recreating Martinez's smoked oysters at home is building your own “smoker,” but even that isn't difficult, he insists. “You just cut the top half off a soda bottle,” he explains, “and screw a bowl [from a bong] in the lid.” His smoker is a blackened bottle so broken in that it actually looks like a special vessel sourced from an Asian shopping trip, but the chef made this contraption back when he opened the restaurant and he's never had to replace it.
Once you've made your smoker and bought a few glass cloches (“We just bought covered butter dishes from Crate and Barrel,” Martinez says), you're ready to work on the oysters. Martinez sources his oysters exclusively from East Coast purveyors, as he's worried about radiation and other contaminants he says are being found in West Coast oysters. “Make sure they're fresh, you don't want your oysters smelling like a sewer,” he says, as he flips one that doesn't pass inspection into the trash. Slip each oyster and its brine into the dish part of the cloche; then, prepare the tea for smoking.
Fill the bowl with a mixture of loose leaf lapsang souchong tea and Sichuan peppercorns. Lapsang souchong is a black tea from China's Fujian Province. Its distinct smoky flavor and strong smell come from the leaves having been slowly dried over pine fires. It can be found in specialty stores, but is increasingly available in neighborhood grocery stores, too; Harney & Sons and Twinings both sell lapsang souchong in individual tea bags; you'll just need to snip the bags open and mix the tea leaves with the pepper, which Martinez says, complements the oyster's brine nicely.
Immerse your smoker in a container of water; then, light the tea-pepper mix with a pastry torch. Once it's smoking, take the lid of the cloche and hold it close, letting it fill with smoke before clapping it on the base of the dish. The oyster should sit in the smoky cloche for a minute before being eaten, preferably, says Martinez, with a wedge of fresh lemon squeezed on the oyster just before slurping it. Repeat the process for each oyster you want to serve.
Guests love the elegance of the cloche for serving the oyster, as well as the sense of anticipation stimulated when the lid is lifted and the smoke wafts out. Martinez serves the oysters four for $18 at Desnuda's East Village and Williamsburg locations, both of which are open seven days a week.