The Times – February 10, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

All around the dining room the only sound you could hear were little moans of pleasure

Can you remember when you tasted your first oyster? It must have been a little bit of an event; such an odd thing to eat, with its briny taste, sluggish colour and slippery muscular texture, and so freighted with expectation. As a child, I viewed the oyster with a mixture of suspicion and respect.

My father, who prided himself on his palate, steered well clear of this particular bivalve, having once swallowed a bad one whereupon he turned a bilious green and had to retire to bed for several days.

So my oyster initiation was with another family, as a 15-year-old on a Parisian exchange; New Year’s Eve, the table piled high with dozens of shells opened minutes before by Monsieur Lenoir, wielding his special shucking blade.

I felt very jejune, sneaking surreptitious glances at my sophisticated neighbours as they deftly disengaged the oysters from their shells, threw their heads back and swallowed in one effortlessly elegant movement.

My next memorable oyster experience was a decade later in Sydney. There was a particular nudist beach, which could only be reached by those in the know, walking through tangled bush land, the smell of eucalyptus almost overpowering in the heat, the glorious 5ft-tall blood-red waratahs with their densely packed waxy petals, a vertiginous descent into a secluded bay and the prelapsarian sight of nut-brown naked young people scraping the sweetest-tasting tiny oysters off the rocks at the water¹s edge. Was it the combination of sun and sea and being broke but carefree that made them taste so good?

Since then I¹ve eaten oysters in many different places — in Belfast with Guinness in a booth in an old pub, the Crown Liquor Saloon, opposite the Europa hotel during the Troubles; the famous silver-scalloped Art Deco oyster bar in Grand Central Station, with its wonderfully unpretentious approach to serving the best oysters from around the world to busy lunch-time toilers sitting cheek by jowl around busy work stations; oyster po-boys in New Orleans; the Belle Epoque brasserie opposite the Gare du Nord; countless seaside restaurants in Normandy and Brittany; Wellfleet oysters from Cape Cod in a homely little restaurant on the docks of Wellfleet itself, and unbelievably nasty, barely thawed gelatinous creatures in Central Park¹s Tavern on the Green.

In this country, until recently, only one oyster mouthful stood out — Marco Pierre White’s fantastic concoction — and that was years ago in the Hyde Park Hotel, so I may be a bit fuzzy on the detail. What I do remember was that the aphrodisiac hype suddenly made sense — it was lemony and creamy and delicate, with tiny threads of cucumber or perhaps pasta shredded on to the top, the oyster poached, a sprinkle of caviar — and all around the dining room the only sound you could hear were little moans of pleasure.

I stumbled upon the Wright Brothers Oyster & Porter House quite by chance.

In the week that I qualify as what must be the last metropolitan foodie to experience the joys of Borough Market for the first time, I read an item in a local free paper suggesting that its future is uncertain. It all hangs, apparently, on whether the government decides to fund a Thameslink rail scheme in the summer. In the same week, I also hear that the Battersea Arts Centre is threatened with closure, as Wandsworth Borough Council has withdrawn all its funding, while simultaneously demanding a whopping new rent.

All of which news must make any true food and arts lover mad as hell, and we¹re not going to stand and see them go without a good fight, are we?

Anyway, back to oysters. I emerged from the market laden with free-range sausages and bacon and black pudding, flowers, bread, freshly churned butter and wonderful cheeses, into Stoney Street with its glimpse of Southwark cathedral and cobbled alleyways beyond. The Wright Brothers place was teeming with people and looked so warm and enticing, I returned with my two sons and a friend for supper. Like the market itself and much of the surrounding area, the Oyster House is atmospheric in an old-fashioned Dickensian way, but with a slightly anarchic, chaotic edge which makes it doubly exciting. The room itself is dark and consists of a bar that seats a dozen people on stools and five more alongside the kitchen. In the centre there are two tables for eight diners each.

The clientele, for the most part, were groups of arty thirtysomethings; a couple of well-turned-out middle-aged couples, and a trio of drunk City bores who were clearly exercising the patience of the waitresses.

There are various blackboards around the place (no menus) listing fishy specials and a great number of different oysters. There are no chips and no vegetables, just a salad of mixed leaves from the market. My boys have yet to sample an oyster and could not be persuaded to try one on this occasion, leaving my friend and me to demolish a Malvern dozen. I had requested something sweet and small (anything too large is a bit gag-worthy) and these pretty much fitted the bill. But am I the only person who sometimes rebels, mid-mouthful, against the whole oyster-thing, as capriciously as a lover can turn against his mate for no apparent reason?

The mains were a total hit — the most scrumptious fish pie, served in a cast-iron skillet, filled with big chunks of perfectly cooked salmon and smoked haddock; a beef pie (both boys were cunningly convinced to try poaching the accompanying oysters in the beef broth; verdict “not bad”); a crab hash cake with a zingy avocado and tomato salsa and a bowl of mussels marinières.

We were so impressed we returned later in the week but decided to try the Feng Sushi bar next door for our appetisers. This is a brightly lit, rather unglamorous space, more communal high tables, and the wasabi and ginger come, off-puttingly, in sachets. This whole area, it seems, is full of eateries catering to busy, buzzy young folk who have things to do, places to go, and no desire to linger over a long meal — which suited us just fine on this occasion.

From the winter menu, we tried a sweet shrimp ceviche and soft shell crab chilli tempura. The ceviche was a mound of cucumber spaghetti with red onions, pink grapefruit and passionfruit ­ the skinny shrimp tails laid artfully around the whole — in a sweetish, tangy sauce. It was surprisingly filling, with so many things going on in your mouth at once. The tempura itself didn’t have much of a chilli kick but came with a punchy salsa of yellow and red baby tomatoes and sticky rice studded with sesame seeds.

I also inadvertently ordered more soft shell crab sushi and, boy, was I glad I did. Absolutely fantastic — the most decadently, velvety delicious sushi I’ve ever tasted. Unfortunately, my fellow diners felt the same way and there was an undignified scrabble of chopsticks to secure the last roll.

Don’t like the name (punny not funny) or the slogan (“If our fish were any fresher, you would have to slap it”) but everything we ordered was beautiful and imaginative in every way; like a sort of utilitarian (and affordable) Nobu.

Back to the Wright Brothers, where we were greeted like old friends. By now I had done my homework and discovered that the Brothers are oyster impresarios who — since launching their business in 2002 — now supply to most of the top-notch restaurants in London. Where we were once a nation of proud oyster-eaters, devouring 500 million of the viscous bivalves a year, we are now producing just 10 million annually, compared with France’s 2 billion. Ben Wright threw in his career as a corporate lawyer and persuaded his brother-in-law, Robin Hancock, to give up his job as a rock’n’roll music producer — so you’d have to say these guys are pretty passionate about restoring The Oyster to its rightful place on the British menu.

If the Bros had their way, we would all be eating our oysters au naturel without any fiddling about with additional ingredients, or even so much as a splash of Tabasco or mignonette. (In America, the shallot vinegar is substituted with a tomato cocktail sauce, which really is a bit of an abomination.)

This time round, I decided to try one of their “adulterated” oysters — a triumverate of Rockerfellers, largish chaps, their creamy grey heads covered in fronds of spinach with a hint of cheesiness. What a peculiar combination of textures and flavours — salty, grassy, slightly watery, a bit savoury and not altogether pleasant. The others could not be persuaded to deviate from the tried-and-tested mussels and fish pie, leaving me to branch out with the cullen skink soup — bland comfort food: parsley, cubes of potatoes, smoked haddock and leeks.

I’ll be back to work my way through the extensive list of oysters in the hope of finding one as sweet as those little beauties we scraped off the rocks in Sydney.

* * *

Wright Brothers Oyster & Porter House

11 Stoney Street, London SE1

(020-7403 9559)

Price: £40 for two, including wine

Feng Sushi

13 Stoney Street

London SE1 (020-7407 8744)

Price: £45 for two, including wine