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Reconsider the Oyster 

Bathing in bivalves by the bucket at three brilliant oyster bars

Wednesday, Nov 3 2004
"I'm thinking about doing a piece on oyster bars," I said idly to Jeff over the phone. "Wait for me!" he commanded, and I was willing, because he and his friend John were coming to the Bay Area in just a few weeks. When they did arrive they were staying in Oakland, so it was an easy call to start our revels at the newish Pearl Oyster Bar & Restaurant, whose cool (in more ways than one) blue-green glass facade gleams a little mysteriously on College Avenue in the restaurant-and-food-store-heavy Rockridge neighborhood. The place doesn't take reservations, so we arrived shortly after it opened at 5:30 p.m. and snagged a quiet table set in a windowed alcove. (Other options include sitting at the oyster bar or at tall communal tables ranged along the wall across from the bar.)

There was lots of stuff on the menu besides the raw bar options (which included clams, crayfish, shrimp, and crab, in addition to half a dozen different oysters). We agreed that we were more tempted by the various starter options than the main courses; fresh off the plane from the East Coast, the boys wanted to eat light. Our first decision was easy: Pearl offers one of each oyster for $12.50, and two of each for $25, giving us just what we needed -- one of each for three. All the oysters (Duck Island, Hama Hama, Hog Island, Kumamoto, Malpeque, and St. Simon) were opened when we ordered them, and came prettily plated on ice with strands of seaweed, with a tiny cup of sharp mignonette sauce and lemon wedges. (I take my oysters straight and sprinkle a few drops of citrus or sauce on the buttered bread alongside, a trick I learned from M.F.K. Fisher.) The bivalves were breathtaking: sweet, briny, salty (especially the Malpeque), creamy (especially my favorite, the plump little Kumamoto).

This is what oysters make me want to eat: more oysters. (Not quite as many as the woman Fisher saw dining in Dijon, who followed seven dozen oysters with seven dozen snails. "She turned a purplish red," she mused. "I have often wondered about her." But I could easily dispatch a dozen more, especially when they're as perfect as these were.) But we'd ordered spicy raw tuna poke -- red cubes the size of miniature dice seasoned with peppers, piled in a martini glass and drenched with sesame oil; a trio of Pacific fish tartare -- three small rounds, halibut garnished with a line of sel gris, albacore with crunchy crystals of fleur de sel, and ahi tuna with red Hawaiian salt, the different salts being a slightly fussy but ultimately educational and interesting touch; and a delightful julienned green papaya and green apple salad topped with strips of fried tofu and roasted peanuts in a spicy lemongrass dressing. And then came an exemplary plate of two tiny, fat Maine peekytoe crab cakes -- mostly crab, barely crisped on the outside, barely holding together, nothing like your average crab cake at all.

The boys were still hungry. This is what I wanted: more oysters. This is what we got: the shellfish tasting, which included several big shrimp in the shell, a heap of crayfish seasoned with Old Bay (a Southern spice mix), and a lovely chunk of succulent Dungeness crab. We also got two vegetable sides, an ear of grilled white corn sprinkled with chile and similarly seasoned smoky fries served with a lovely aioli, but both a slightly bitter-tasting mistake, as far as I was concerned.

Nothing on the dessert list (fruit sorbets, apple almond crisp, N.Y. cheesecake, chocolate espresso pot de crème, hot fudge sundae) seemed essential after our fish feast, though I did make a last-minute pitch for more oysters.

I was only briefly denied, for in the morning I picked Jeff and John up for lunch at Swan Oyster Depot. I'd hoped to arrive early enough to avoid the inevitable line, but the best-laid plans, etc.: We got into the inevitable line (there are only 18 stools, after all) at exactly noon. We sent John across the street to Acorn Books, promising to call him on his cell, but we'd scarcely budged when he returned on his own after 20 minutes. I felt guilty: Why subject your friends to standing around in the hot sun, especially when they're only in town for a few days? But they insisted they didn't mind, even when the wait dragged on past an hour. "It's part of the experience!" Jeff insisted, brightly and, I thought, mendaciously. We did enjoy, when we crept closer to the entrance, eying the fresh fish on display in the window (Swan also functions as a fish market), especially when one of the five Sancimino brothers who run the place would reach into the tray full of snowy lump crabmeat to prepare a crab salad.

At exactly 1:15 p.m., an hour and a quarter after we first got in line, we slid into three seats at the well-worn marble counter (in continuous use since 1912, Sancimino-owned since 1946), sighing with relief and pleasure. The "menu" is an assortment of signs posted on the wall, from which we quickly ordered two each of the four oysters on offer (Bluepoint, Kumamoto, Miyagi, and Olympia), making an even two dozen; three cups of clam chowder; and a crab Louis salad to share. The chowder came out quickly, a thin, satisfying brew of cream, clams, potatoes, and not much else. (No flour, thank God.) The restaurant offers oyster crackers on the counter (as well as house-ground horseradish, lemons, and house-made cocktail sauce), which we pretty much ignored. The four oyster choices turned out to be five, because the place had both local and northern Miyagis (the server thoughtfully gave us one of each). The little beasts were warmer than the ones we had at Pearl, almost room temperature, but they were still crisp, briny, and exciting -- well, I found the Bluepoint a little flat. But the crab Louis was luscious, quantities of silky crab mixed with the creamy, tomato-y, mildly chilied dressing and piled on top of crunchy chopped iceberg lettuce ("The best use of iceberg I can think of," Jeff said). I couldn't stop eating it. I might, I think, ask for a little less dressing the next time I order it. Or I might not.

John was replete, but Jeff and I shared a dozen chewy little Eastern cherrystone clams, strong-flavored enough that I dipped some in red sauce, anointed others with a dab of horseradish and a couple with the superb house-made tartar sauce, heady with fresh dill, which was divine. (There are also various seafood cocktails on offer, and lobster hot or cold, but oysters and the Louis have always been my favorites.) We had been feasting for only 45 minutes, but the food had induced such a happy state that we'd forgotten the time spent shifting from foot to foot outside.

John is otherwise engaged on Saturday, so it's just Jeff and me, shifting from foot to foot as we stand in line at the Hog Island Oyster Co. at the Ferry Building. Hours earlier we stood in another line at the Primavera stand at the Farmers' Market outside, right in front of Calvin Trillin, who ordered pretty much what we did (chilaquiles, a tuna-stuffed pepper, and a chicken mole tamale). But in the meantime we've walked up to Union Square and back, and we're hungry again. After 20 minutes we score a nice table for two by the window, overlooking the bay, and order discreetly: the Hog Island mix, a dozen oysters (three each of the four on offer), and a large bowl of clam chowder. Once again we watch as our oysters are opened and placed before us on a special stand. We get two kinds from Hog Island in Tomales Bay, Sweetwater and Atlantic; Effingham Bay from British Columbia; and Kumamoto from Washington. My oyster perceptions are monotonous: They are fabulous. I love each and every one of them. This is the best concentrated spell of eating that I can remember, three days of selfish shellfish bliss. More oysters! More!

Just as I observe to Jeff that what I really want is more oysters, out comes our "chowder," a shallow dish full of cream, batons of carrot and potato dice, chunks of bacon, fresh thyme, and a heap of tiny clams in their shells, whose juices are mingling with the warm cream. I am very happy we ordered this. (Another time I might try the oyster stew, the first one we've seen on our oyster tour. Jeff and I have happy, shared memories of the little copper pans full of buttery oyster stew served us at the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York. Hog Island also offers baked oysters Rockefeller, Casino, or with beurre blanc; a couple of green salads; and a grilled cheese sandwich. That's it.)

As Jonathan Swift observed, "He was a bold man that first eat an oyster," to which I add, "Many thanks."

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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