Even before I became a vegetarian, I wasn’t keen on the idea of the oysters. Their texture reminded me of expelled bodily fluids and they seemed guaranteed to give you Norovirus. This concern was solidified by a former boyfriend, who once turned up at my house at 1 AM from a party where they’d been serving oysters (yes, he was very rich). He spent the entire night and most of the next day throwing up into my IKEA bin. I blame the oysters.
However, I’ve always loved the salty, deep-fried flavours of the American South, so when I discovered a Nashville oyster dish on the menu at new East London restaurant, Carte Blanche, I was intrigued. Deep-fried, panko-covered oysters resting in a Big Mac-style sauce, and covered with Nashville butter hot sauce. This could be it, I thought, as I took in the menu description. This could be the beginning of a love affair between myself and the humble mollusc. No longer would oysters be tainted by the awful posh boys I’ve dated.
These Southern-style oysters come from the mind of a man who is firmly not from Tennessee, nor even a traditionally trained chef. Andy Taylor, British chef and owner of Carte Blanche, left school at 15 to pursue music, and ended up working in the industry for about ten years as part of the band Youth Kills. When relationships with the label didn't quite go to plan, Taylor switched to another life-long interest: cooking.
“I'd always cooked for my mates, and when I was 15, I got a job as a waiter for a two Michelin-starred chef Michael Caines in Exeter, but just as a waiter,” he tells me on a rainy Thursday morning as we sit in Carte Blanche. “I saw all this French, à la carte food, and I thought it was really really cool. Just aesthetically, it was just my vibe. It was mind-blowing.”
With an enduring love of French food but with little real experience, Taylor launched Le Bun in 2013, a burger pop-up that aimed “to make French flavours look American.” It was here that Taylor began his real culinary training.
“It was terrifying,” he tells me, Coca-Cola in one hand and cigarette in the other. “I went from cooking for six mates to the opening weekend at Street Feast [a street food festival] making 2,000 portions.”
Luckily, the French-burger-collision worked, and Le Bun ran successfully for five years—at festivals and street food events like Dalston’s Street Feast. The pop-up never gained a permanent residence, however, and Taylor felt the time had come for something more established.
“I like restaurants, I like good service, I like playing the music you want to play,” he says. “So I was trying to think what I wanted to do If I wasn't going to do Le Bun. I was watching loads of stuff on TV, hanging out with mates, and just trying stuff out, and I always went back to the same French and American ingredients.”
Taylor then pulls up his sleeve and shows me a tattoo across his forearm of the Carte Blanche logo. Turns out, after a “4 AM laptop session” and a trip to Thailand, Carte Blanche was born … or shall we say, immortalised on Taylor’s arm.
“You got that before the restaurant was launched?” I ask.
“Before anything. Before I'd done the menu."
Confident and now corporeally committed to the idea, Taylor found a location on Hackney's Mare Street, a popular destination for insufferable East London food lovers, to share his American French fusion.
“It's a nod to that French fine dining that I like,” he tells me, “but I wanted to do stuff that reminds me of that in a really chilled out atmosphere.”
The menu epitomises this: there’s steak tartare with beef fat crisps, hot wings with Roquefort, and of course, the the Nashville fried oysters.
"I wanted to do an oyster dish as a nod to a fancy restaurant, even though this is really not a fancy restaurant,” Taylor explains, as we make our way over to the kitchen. “In the very first recipe, they were in this caviar hollandaise, with something else fancy on it, but that wasn’t right.”
After visiting cities across the US for menu research, Taylor discovered Nashville fried chicken, and thought it would work perfectly for his fancy-but-not-fancy oyster dish.
"Essentially, it's a Nashville fried chicken recipe on an oyster," he explains, matter of factly.
I’m still soaking from the rain, and Taylor’s coffee machine is broken, but this doesn’t stop me from feeling excited about the prospect of trying the oysters again. Taylor briefly runs out to retrieve a coffee (legend), then returns and starts shelling the molluscs. He dips the gloopy oysters in flour, egg, and Panko breadcrumbs, before deep-frying them for about a minute.
Next is where the real flavours come in: Taylor whips up a homemade Big Mac sauce with bone marrow, ketchup, pickles, mustard, and sherry, and dollops the sauce into the empty oyster shell. Once the oysters are cooked, Taylor douses the crispy fillet in a spicy, buttery, Nashville sauce, and lays the precious souls to rest in the shell bath of Big Mac sauce.
The flavour result is unreal: the sweet, creamy, and vinegary sauce combines perfectly with the crispy flesh of the oyster. It’s rich, indulgent, and a nothing like from the flavourless goo that I associate with oysters.
Totally worth the risk of Norovirus.