Over the years many of us have enjoyed countless dozen oysters at Desire, the oyster bar in the Royal Sonesta Hotel in New Orleans. If it was not quite as much fun as Acme or quite as good as Felix and there was no time to head uptown to Casamento’s, the best of them all, Desire was a sound safety valve for oyster addiction.
It has mirrors and glass and a marble bar back with a shelf to fill with crushed ice for the display of oysters and other shellfish. It is small enough to be convivial and has a big enough menu to accommodate the souls who are sadly squeamish about eating an oyster raw. The staff has been congenial and ebullient; conversation never flagged.
The hotel itself flaunts a laudable culinary ambition in housing R’evolution, John Folse’s lavish and much anticipated restaurant. It aims at nothing less than becoming a living laboratory for the past and future cuisine of Louisiana, much as Dinner in London is Heston Blumenthal’s daring (if expensive) effort to reinvent the British culinary past.
It therefore surprised us to find that Desire has become a nightmare. We took an accustomed spot at the bar near the taps (but remembered a better selection), placed our orders and were told after ten minutes to move. The demand came from the surly man who would turn out to be our shucker; he said the seats he had in mind, a vast fifteen feet down the bar, were closer to the oysters and ‘would make it easier for him.’ We could only imagine the daily strain he faced in sending oysters out to the vastness of tables.
We had initially decamped from those very same seats. That seafood on ice behind them had been replaced by a dispiriting jumble of replicas, none too realistic, of vegetables and bread. A plastic potato with your oysters anyone? The seats also stood by an open door, which served several functions. It cancelled away the effect of air conditioning on a very hot day and introduced the aroma of urine and shit from the mulecart outside.
But move we did, like hostages handicapped by Stockholm Syndrome, to keep the peace. Drinks arrived without glasses for the tepid beer. We asked for them, twice, and drank it from the bottle. After an interval our interlocutor returned to shuck an oyster and drop it in front of us. Onto the counter. Without any of the pewter oyster plates stacked beside us. Without ice, or napery, or utensils or lemons or sauce. He dropped his knife too, onto the filthy floor, before picking it up to shuck a couple of oysters for someone else. Then he waddled away to resume his running fight with a waitress.
We looked at our oyster. It was the size of a puck. We fondled its shell; it was warm. Following a considerable interval the shucker returned and we tailored our order from two dozen to half. He shucked them in a languid, uninspired way. More pucks, more warmth, bad taste. Not gone but neither fresh, perhaps due in part to the absence of ice behind the bar as well as upon it. Size does matter, and in the freakishly hot waters of the gulf in this year, these had grown too big to eat raw. Their texture was terrible.
We gagged down three of the monsters before someone arrived to dump a pile of tired lemon wedges directly onto the counter. She produced a paper cup of cocktail sauce the diameter of a nickel and a single tiny plastic fork; a comedy of scale. It took an eon to get the bill, exorbitant by the standards of the better oyster bars in town.
Our memories of Desire had included ice, and plates, and metal forks; napkins too, and a bottle of hot sauce, bowls of cocktail sauce, even horseradish, not to mention fantastic oysters both raw and fried. We are not alone; in Sex, Death & Oysters, Robb Walsh, a habitué of oyster bars round the world, writes of a happy visit. Those days are gone.
The whole place looked dirty and shabby, like nobody cares, because no one does. A Bloody Mary was good: It must have been born elsewhere in the hotel.