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The first time I tried Hog Island Sweetwater oysters, on a picnic bench out at the Tomales Bay farm, it was love at first shuck. I'd had flings with other West Coast oysters before — the sweet, super-popular Kumamotos; the tiny, briny Olympias — but Hog Island Oyster Co.'s signature oysters had a certain something that's kept them as my favorite to this day. My ideal afternoon involves a dozen Sweetwaters, a glass of dry white wine, and an outdoor table with expansive water views, which is why the company's small Ferry Building outpost is a brilliant place to get a fix. I just wish I could get as turned on by the rest of the food.
But let's start with the oysters, because they are the first and best reason to visit the stylish, U-shaped bar tucked in the back of the Ferry Building. Unlike most commercial farms in the U.S., Hog Island co-owners and founders John Finger and Terry Sawyer, marine biologists by education, use the French "rack and bag" system to grow their oysters, which results in a nicely shaped shell ideal for slurping raw. They also take the extra step of rinsing harvested oysters in a filtered saltwater holding tank before consumption, ensuring a clean flavor with none of the brackishness of the tides.
The result is a plump, perfect oyster with just enough salinity and brininess to balance out its essential sweetness. I've brought Hog Island virgins to the bar and seen their eyes light up as they tried Sweetwaters for the first time. The daily changing menu also includes textbook-perfect Hog Island Kumamotos and a short, well-curated list of both Pacific and Atlantic varieties from other farms. They're served expertly shucked with their liquor intact, lounging on a bed of rock salt and garnished with a slice of lemon, lime, and a vessel of jalapeño-laced mignonette, which turns out to be an ideal companion to the briny treats.
Sometimes, however, you go with people who don't love oysters, or you're looking for more of a meal than a dozen luscious bivalves can provide, and that's where the bar starts to lose its footing.
Clam chowder is the biggest disappointment — the broth is woefully thin and underseasoned to the point where it felt like eating a large bowl of warm cream. Thick-cut bacon bits added some flavor, and a few potato chunks added texture, but the kitchen subscribes to the mystifying local practice of serving clams in their shells for chowder, and extracting the meat was a messy, time-consuming endeavor.
Baked oysters came in three varieties, with varying degrees of success. The best of the bunch were given the bagna càuda treatment (a Piedmontese hot dip made with butter, garlic, and anchovies; this one also had capers and parsley). It was savory and buttery, with heavy overtones of anchovy. But the oysters Casino were overwhelmingly salty, and, in the harissa version, so much of the piquillo pepper-based sauce was piled on top of the oyster that its marine flavor was lost.
There are also few options for the shellfish-adverse. A grilled cheese sandwich was delicious, on fluffy, brioche-like bread, with a sophisticated three-cheese blend — but then again, grilled cheese is hard to screw up, and $12 seemed like a lot to pay for bread and cheese, even with a few house-made pickles on the side. Salads were well-composed and fresh, as they well should be in one of San Francisco's meccas of local produce. The Little Gem salad spoke to the changing seasons with its balanced mixture of quartered candy stripe figs, fresh apple slices, crushed almonds, a shower of shaved ricotta salata, and apple cider vinaigrette, but it was more of a side than a main course.
The menu did have a few standouts, like the oyster stew, which looked like a bowl of cream but didn't taste like one — it had a smoky, complex flavor thanks to a swirl of melted chipotle butter, and the (shell-free) oysters lurking at the bottom of the bowl were succulent and meaty. Manila clam steamers had a heady broth that seemed made for dunking the table's baguette into, though the chorizo in the mix bullied the subtle flavors of the clams into submission.
Despite its missteps, I will continue to take out-of-towners to Hog Island, and dip in myself for a dozen from time to time during happy hour, when the precious oysters are half-price and there are deals on the long list of oyster-friendly wines and local beers (Mondays and Thursdays, 5 to 7 p.m.). The room is welcoming and attractive: Inside has a poured concrete bar with prime view of the world-class shuckers and framed photos of the Tomales Bay farm on the walls; outside has a handful of tables with peerless views of the Bay Bridge and a salty breeze from the water. I'll go somewhere else in the Ferry Building for a meal, but there are few better places in the city to bask in the afterglow of fresh oysters on the half-shell.
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