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"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.)
5634 College Ave.
Oakland, CA 94618-1541
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Shellfish tasting $21
Swan Oyster Depot
Oysters $7.50/six, $15/dozen
Crab Louis $16.50
Hog Island Oyster Co.
Hog Island mix $13/six, $23/dozen, $38/two dozen
Clam chowder $11/small, $14/large
Pearl Oyster Bar & Restaurant, 5634 College (at Oceanview), Oakland, (510) 654-5426. Open Monday through Thursday from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10 p.m., with a limited menu until midnight. Closed Sunday. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: fairly easy. Noise level: moderate.
Swan Oyster Depot, 1517 Polk (at California), 673-1101. Open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 1, 19. Noise level: high.
Hog Island Oyster Co., 1 Ferry Building, No. 11A, Market & Embarcadero, 391-7117. Open Monday through Wednesday from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Thursday and Friday until 9 p.m., Saturday until 6 p.m., and Sunday until 5 p.m. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: with validation, $2 per hour for first two hours in the Ferry Building lot. Muni: 2, 7, 14, 21, 66, 71, F, J, K, L, M, N. Noise level: moderate to high.
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.
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