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Ah, Shucks 

The raw deal is the real deal at DRAGO'S, which despite its many impressive approaches to oyster season is at its best when it keeps it simple.

Drago's serves pretty good lobster at black-market prices, and the plain lentil soup might be Fat City's greatest sleeper, but this time of year Drago's is synonymous with just one thing: the Gulf oyster. If this reads like news, welcome to town. You should stick around for the nifty party we're throwing in February.

One cool evening earlier this month, half of Metairie seemed to fill Drago's two dining rooms while the other half huddled amongst the extended cabs in the parking lot, beneath the smoke swirling around the restaurant's rooftop -- a sort of symbolic SOS from the oyster shuckers inside whose wrists don't rest until the hordes are sated. The bar was full, the entryway a hazard, and I had forgotten my jacket; the only alternative to the chilly outdoors was squeezing as vertically as possible against the oyster shuckers' station. It wasn't an unpleasant wait. The burbling live lobster tanks, the gray noise of a restaurant on auto pilot, and the stab-twist-pop, stab-twist-popping of the shucking team was as soothing as the chocolate martinis that steadily bobbed past on cocktail trays.

At a certain moment, a surge of ocean air washed over me. Then another. Once I managed a half-turn, pivoting fully upright like a music-box ballerina, I came nose-to-nose with the source: a tower of rectangular trays stacked 15 high, each one bearing a legion of just-shucked oysters. As I gaped, a 16th tray slid on top. Having outgrown their calcified dwellings, most of the steely oysters lurched over the sides of their half-shells; that clean, aquatic breeze was their collective sigh for the newfound legroom.

The Cvitanovich Family, headed by Croatian immigrant Drago Cvitanovich, employs six oyster shuckers on the busiest evenings. They appear to be hired according to palm size. Local diners "would like to have oysters as big as a shoe," according to matriarch Klara Cvitanovich, Drago's wife. The ones they've been sourcing lately -- from Croatian oystermen in places like Port Sulfur and Empire -- look big as softballs nestled into the shuckers' rubber mitts. Roughly 800 dozen of these oysters wind up on the grill each weekend night, sizzled in their shells into the house specialty, charbroiled oysters.

After tasting nine different oyster preparations at Drago's, I contend that raw is best. This is as it should be (but isn't) in every oyster house, so that the kitchen may enhance the oysters' perfection through cooking, not mask their flaws. By my observations, however, not enough diners profit from Drago's raw beauties, and too many of the cooking techniques -- including, sometimes, charbroiling -- impede their natural splendor. Still, Drago's is a full-grown restaurant, not just a raw bar, and since I empathize with the impulse to eat oysters in as many forms as possible in high season, I must concede that a Gulf oyster cooked only moderately well is better than no Gulf oyster at all.

I'm particularly keen on the curious Oyster Herradura, a sort of Mediterranean oyster stew in which poached oysters, sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts and a whole portobello mushroom commune in a sweet, opaque, tequila-based broth -- dreamy on a cool night. In the nearly identical Herradura Shrimp, snappy shrimp and pine nuts are in textural accord.

Though Drago's oysters maintain excellent quality whatever their preparation, it was the impossibly tender meats that stole the limelight in two entrees, Shuckee Duckee and Cajun Surf and Turf. In the former, two blackened and lean duck breasts flanked a mess of creamy linguine and oysters; in the latter, blackened medallions of ruby-rare filet mignon, accompanied by oysters and shrimp, required no knife.

Oyster-centric appetizers are touch-and-go. I recommend the Portobello & Oyster only if oyster volume is the priority, as vinegar overwhelmed the mushroom -- and the dish -- even while the oyster count exceeded two dozen. Ditto the oyster-spinach soup, which is thick enough to eat with a fork.

Skewered and served with a sharp horseradish sauce, the bacon-wrapped oysters brochette are like moist little cocktail wienies. Similarly, the famous charbroiled oysters, overlaid with dried herbs and a dusting of Parmesan cheese, are not unlike browned Italian sausages. Unfortunately, while my first dozen of this specialty years ago set the gold standard for all the replicas around town (Tommy Cvitanovich invented the charbroiled oyster concept here), lately they taste as if they've been splashed with the fuel that fires the grill. Is an overactive grill the problem? Armed with water bottles, Drago's cooks do attempt to squelch the flames that lick skyward as the oysters sputter in their baths of garlicky, buttercup-colored sauce; perhaps a hose is in order. Service is no-nonsense -- with a waiting list even at lunch, small talk with the staff is in short supply. The decor is equally high on functionality, though the restaurant is undergoing big changes. Within two months, the kitchen and main dining room will flip-flop, and seating will increase by 100. But that's just cosmetics. Drago's could overtake Fat City (a plan that looks to be in progress some nights), and still nothing would upstage one perfect, cool-weather Gulf oyster.

click to enlarge DRAGO'S employs as many as six oyster shuckers - (apparently according to palm size), including Dudley - Battie, seen here cracking the case of the raw bottom - feeders. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • DRAGO'S employs as many as six oyster shuckers (apparently according to palm size), including Dudley Battie, seen here cracking the case of the raw bottom feeders.
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