At the end of Bike to Work Day yesterday, SFoodie donned our best biking formalwear and pedaled to Aquarium of the Bay for the Bubbly and Bivalves charity event. A diverse crowd (translation: well-off people of many ages and hairstyles) streamed through the door. We quickly spit-scrubbed the bike grease off our foreheads and headed in.
The event was a benefit for the Watershed Project, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and restoring the bay's fragile coastal ecosystem. With its aquarium backdrop and ocean-based dinner menu, the dots were handily connected between people and their underwater brethren.
The evening had a bit of funhouse flow, with wine purveyors and restaurants tucked in amongst the starfish and chinchillas. (Note: We did some research and technically, chinchillas have nothing to do with the ocean. We nonetheless support the aquarium's decision to give them an exhibit, because have you seen these things?)
Almost immediately an aquarium employee beckoned from the elevator: "Wanna go downstairs?" "Sure!" we said (It's a good thing no one in a van ever offered us candy as children.) This led to a lengthy, wide-eyed detour straight out of a grade-school field trip. "How do they make those fishies so big?!" Before we completely regressed, hunger set in and we headed back to the festivities upstairs.
Our first stop was the CleanFish table, manned by a genial, beret-topped graduate of the Pepé Le Pew Finishing School for the Cartoonishly French. "Ah, bonjour mes amis!" he cooed. He explained that tonight's snack, a tender scallop ceviche with red bell pepper, onion, and cilantro was made using übersustainable Laughing Bird Lantern scallops from Peru. Thumbs down for the food miles traveled to import these niblets, but thumbs up for their Earth-forward cultivation practices. "Bon appétit!" cheered the Frenchman, right on cue.
We then relayed from table to table, trying to get a full meal out of many wee nibbles: bass rillettes with pickled shallots and capers from Waterbar; chilled mussels with roasted chili aoli from the Slanted Door; and, of course, a trawler's-worth of (farm-raised, natch) raw oysters from Drakes Bay, Hog Island, and Tomales Bay.
Weirdly, the food highlight of the evening didn't come from the bounteous sea. We were totally swept away by the butternut squash empanadas from Greens, made with smoked cheddar and poblano chiles and topped with a fire-roasted tomato salsa. Someone had unceremoniously put them on an unmanned table in the corner but even after sitting out, unwarmed, for a couple of hours, these little gems were the runaway smash. It was folly to leave them unguarded, because SFoodie was able to mainline empanadas for a half hour without any sense of proportion or shame.
The evening ended with desserts from Scream Sorbet, Bi-Rite, and TCHO Chocolate, and a rousing call-to-arms from journalist, oyster lover, and bon vivant Rowan Jacobsen. Jacobsen drove home the evening's true purpose: restoring and protecting the Bay Area's ailing oyster reefs. His ode to the oyster involved not just its benefits to the larger ecosystem, but also its flavor profile. "An oyster is sweet, salty, rich and umami.... It's basically the perfect food, and no chef had to be involved," he trumpeted. Jacobsen then downed the oyster he'd been fondling during his rhapsody, much to the delight of his rapt audience.
The finale was a saucy little piano ditty about an oyster's epic journey, followed by a rallying cry from Linda Hunter, Watershed Project's executive director: "Do we all love oysters?!" The crowd's reply was not meek.