Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Bivalve-Curious in Tomales Bay

Oyster eaters, it's true: our beloved bivalves taste much better at the source.
A recent pilgrimage to Tomales Bay opened my eyes and mouth to the most delectable mouthfuls of mollusk I have ever eaten in our country. 

Those sweet, slick, and silky little creatures seemed barely out of the water every place we ordered them, whether at a random diner, a roadside counter, or one of the area's top tables.  Such immaculate purity and undefiled virtue! 

How many fabulous ways there are to ravish them.

Until this trip, I typically devoured them raw and naked, with just a glass of wine and some bread and butter for accompaniment.  But here again, Tomales Bay prompted a revelation.  It seems that superbly fresh oysters can indeed remain just as delicious after they're cooked--something I would have rejected as impossible before.

I certainly did put away quite a few of the naked variety on site, but found myself completely enchanted by all the exciting and original ways these beauties get dressed up on their home turf.

My first tentative step down the path of cooked oyster love occurred at Priscilla's, a tiny, no-frills, diner-like restaurant on the main drag in Inverness.  The place did not look promising given its full page of traditional pizzas and scant handful of oyster based dishes.  But appearances can be deceiving... these guys can rock the fried oysters like you wouldn't believe.

Crunchy on the outside, creamy on the inside, and absolutely greaseless.  Cue celestial chorus!  (And do you see how fresh and beautiful that side salad is? So unexpected, and so delicious.)

In addition to these badasstic cornmeal crusted fried oysters, the place also offered Silvertap's Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc, which is a dead ringer for the Languedoc's addicting Picpoul de Pinet.  And, like Picpoul de Pinet, this stuff was priced to drank.  Unfortunately for us (or perhaps not), only eight ounces were left in their keg, so we had to switch to beer after a quick glass as aperitif.  The Lagunitas Brewing Company's IPA we chose that day proved to be the go-to beverage with every oyster preparation we encountered.

Especially this one:

Oysters Kilpatrick.  Life altering.  Thank you, Australia, for creating this most miraculous of barbecued oyster recipes!  Bacon + Worcester-based sauce + Oyster = bliss.  The ones pictured above are at The Marshall Store, on the eastern shore of Tomales Bay in the town of Marshall. 

There's a lovely view of the bay from the roadside counter where those desiring to drink alcohol are relegated (the Store has no permit to serve on their premises).  Note that there's no roof over this area, so bring a jacket--the breeze off the water can be brisk-- and try to time your visit when the weather is cooperating.

Oh, and it's cash only there, so plan ahead. You'll need at least a dozen of the Kilpatricks ($13 for the half dozen, if memory serves).

Last, but certainly not least, we come to the oyster pizza at Osteria Stellina in Point Reyes Station.  What must have started as a mountain of thinly sliced leeks is sweated in butter and enriched with cream, then slathered all over the delicate thin skin of the pizza crust.  The raw oysters (out of the shell) are lowered into position, and into the oven it goes until the crust is cooked to a perfect golden brown, and those juicy little oysters are straining at their seams.

Thanks to the earthiness of the leeks, this pizza actually went beautifully with the non-vintage old vine Pleiades XXI, a quirky local red from winemaker Sean Thackrey.  The light body and earth-driven character totally worked with this pizza--and absolutely every other seafood item we ordered.  Magic.

Now that I've experienced what oysters can be just an hour and a half's drive away, I don't see myself ordering them anywhere else.  Unfortunately, I can already feel the withdrawal setting in.

This is when I thank the bivalve gods that I bought a copy of the excellent book "Oyster Culture" by Tomales Bay resident Gwendolyn Meyer, which contains history, science, pictures, and (most importantly) recipes for the region's most famous product.  Though my Napa versions will never taste as fine as the ones grown, cooked, and devoured within a half-mile of Tomales Bay, they hopefully will keep me going until my next visit.

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