Sunday, February 08, 2009

Shuck a Buck for Oysters

Living in the Bay Area, I have access to a lot of great food all year long. Case in point: oysters. Not just limited to the months that end in “r,” good raw oysters are found any time of the year, and at some places for only $1 each.

In the current economy, $1 oysters sound pretty good right about now. But can you get them any day of the week? I decided to test this theory out as I recently went hunting for $1 oysters around the Bay Area (OK, mostly in San Francisco and near my home in Oakland). Come along for the ride, won’tcha?

Monday: Hog Island Oyster Co.
Location: One Ferry Building (north end), San Francisco
PH: 415.391.7117
Web site: www.hogislandoysters.com
Time available: Mondays and Thursdays, 5 to 7 p.m.
What I ordered: A dozen oysters and a draft Pilsener
Total* paid: $15.50


Why not start the week off with the best? Hog Island Oyster Co. has gained the reputation of producing the freshest-tasting oysters locally. (Their farm is in the beautiful Tomales Bay area up north.) Its raw bar at the Ferry Building along the Embarcadero draws crowds of regulars and tourists every day, but especially when they offer their $1 oyster happy hour.

On Mondays and Thursdays, get there early if you expect to find a seat at the granite bar (or maybe at a seat outside if the weather is nice). They don’t take reservations, so you just sign up on the list at the front and wait. I got there at exactly 5 p.m. and the bar was nearly full already with diners who had been eating earlier, but I was able to sneak onto an empty stool at the bar.

There’s only one variety offered for the $1 deal, and today it was Hog Island’s sweetwaters. The happy hour menu also includes $3.50 pint beer on draft and a couple of appetizer specials. My dozen oysters came with a mignonette and a wedge of lemon and lime.

The sweetwaters were very interesting. Alone, they were salty like the sea. But when I dipped them in the mignonette, the flavor softened and became more rounded and creamy.

The Good: Fresh oysters and great view
The Bad: Because of the crowd, service can be mixed. One server who seated me was curt while the server who took my order was friendly.

Tuesday: Woodhouse Fish Co.
Location: 2073 Market St. (near Church), San Francisco
PH: 415.437.CRAB
Web site: www.woodhousefish.com
Time available: Tuesdays, 4 to closing
What I ordered: Half a dozen oysters, bay shrimp and avocado sandwich, draft beer
Total* paid: $19.95


This neighborhood seafood joint near the Castro reminds me of some place in New England with all its fishing paraphernalia hanging around. It’s the kind of place where you would order fish and chips (if you were the kind of guy who’s into fried foods).

I took a seat at the tiny counter (only four stools) and ordered half a dozen of the day’s special oysters, which were Fanny Bay oysters from Washington state. I also got a happy hour pint of Sierra Nevada ($4).

The problem with $1 oysters at a restaurant rather than a bar is you end up feeling the need to eat more. So I ended up making it an early dinner and ordered the bay shrimp and avocado sandwich ($9.95). The sandwich was overflowing with shrimp and avocado and was served in a nicely toasted bun. It was simple but delicious.

For the oysters, the Fanny Bay variety was plump but more beige in color. It lacked a briny flavor, but it didn’t matter because I kicked it up with the super cocktail sauce served with a heaping dollop of horseradish.

The Good: I love eating oysters with cocktail sauce and horseradish, which is the only way they’re served at Woodhouse.
The Bad: The French fries that came with my sandwich was a bit soft. (Not that I would have eaten all of it, but I tested them for you guys.)

Wednesday: Hyde Street Seafood House
Location: 1509 Hyde St. (between Jackson and Pacific), San Francisco
PH: 415.931.FISH
Web site: www.hydestseafoodhouse.com
Time available: Daily, 5 to 7 p.m.
What I ordered: Dozen oysters and a glass of Riesling
Total* paid: $19.50


Hyde Street Seafood has the old world charms of the neighborhoods it’s in, nestled between Nob Hill and Russian Hill in the city. The dark wood paneling and fish mounted on the walls give off the feel of a smoke room, and the quiet, tiny bar comes off like the lobby of a forgotten hotel.

Despite the dark and quiet, I ventured there to try out their $1 oysters, which conveniently you have a pick of three varieties. Not convenient is the fact that you have to order by the dozen, so no half dozen or 13 if you felt inclined. It has to be a dozen every time, although you can mix and match the varieties. I found the dozen minimum a bit annoying because really the promotion should be “a dozen oysters for $12” instead of “$1 oysters.”

Anywho, I ordered four of each of the three varieties offered this night—Barron Point (from Washington state), Point Reyes (from up north) and Fanny Bay (a really popular oyster right now from Washington). I also ordered a glass of the 2007 Riesling from Rundolf Muller in Germany ($7.50).

The oysters were served with a mignonette and a cocktail sauce with horseradish. The Fanny Bay were delicious, but I didn’t really care for the small and often broken pieces of Point Reyes and I definitely didn’t enjoy the Barron Point, which were tiny and flat like pieces of moss instead of oysters.

The Good: Nightly oysters with 3 choices
The Bad: Stale horseradish, dingy settings and stupid dozen-minimum order requirement

Thursday: Café Rouge
Location: 1782 4th St., Berkeley
PH: 510.525.2712
Web site: www.caferouge.net
Time available: Tues. to Thurs., 5:30 to 9 p.m.
What I ordered: Dozen oysters and glass of 2007 Sauvignon Blanc
Total* paid: $23.50


Café Rouge is a festive restaurant in the Fourth Street Shopping District in Berkeley, and it has a long bar with a raw bar at the end.

The restaurant offered a $1 oyster Wednesday for awhile but has now expanded it to Tuesday and Thursday. It also offers three choices for the $1 oysters (just like Hyde Street Seafood but without the dozen minimum requirement). On this night, they offered Chelsea Gem, Marin Miyagi and Hog Island Sweetwater.

I started by ordering two of each to try. The Marin Miyagi sat in long narrow shells and were salty like the sea. The Hog Island Sweetwaters were on the bland side, not as salty as the versions I got at the Hog Island Oyster Co. at the Ferry Building. The best for the night, I felt, were the Chelsea Gems, which were small but plump, sort of like the popular kumamotos. They tasted clean and fresh with a slight hint of the sea. I liked them so much I ordered another half dozen.

The oysters are served with a simple mignonette, which looked like it was made with sweet rice vinegar. I washed my oysters down with a glass of 2007 Sauvignon Blanc from Chotard Sancerre Loire (which at $11.50 a glass cost almost as much as the oysters).

The Good: Friendly service and I like having a choice for the $1 oysters
The Bad: Location a bit out of the way when looking for happy hour

Friday: Bacar
Location: 448 Brannan St. (near 3rd), San Francisco
PH: 415.904.4100
Web site: www.bacarsf.com
Time available: Mon. to Fri., 4:30 to 6 p.m.
What I ordered: Half a dozen oysters, meatball appetizer, glass of Sauvignon Blanc
Total* paid: $15.00


This once-fancy SOMA restaurant and wine lounge has gone through some changes lately as it tries to gain back some of its luster from the dot-com days. But there’s no denying they have a great happy hour. Not only do they serve $1 oysters but its bar bites are 50 percent off.

The restaurant with exposed brick is broken into three areas—the main dining room, a downstairs wine lounge and a small bar area to the right of the entrance. This is where I sat after work Friday, looking for some $1 oysters. The variety for that night was Miyagi Gems, and I ordered half a dozen along with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc from Austria (it was the happy hour wine special for $5).

I also ordered the tomato braised meatballs ($4), which were served with baked polenta cakes.

The oysters were fresh and plump, and served with cocktail sauce and a red vinegar mignonette. I liked the meatballs but the polenta cake was a bit stale.

The Good: Fresh oysters and friendly bartenders
The Bad: Popular spot for happy hour so it gets crowded, making it difficult to walk through the maze of tables and chairs tightly packed in the bar area.

Saturday: Sea Salt
Location: 2512 San Pablo Ave. (at Dwight), Berkeley
PH: 510.883.1720
Web site: www.seasaltrestaurant.com
Time available: Daily, 3 to 6 p.m.
What I ordered: Half a dozen oysters, hamachi collar appetizer, clam chowder and draft beer
Total* paid: $27.00


Sea Salt is a seafood restaurant I’ve been meaning to try, and it was definitely a convenient spot to hunt down oysters since they have $1 oysters every day starting as early as 3 p.m.

I arrived on a Saturday night around 5:30 p.m. and the tiny bar at the front was already filled. I almost lost hope that I wouldn’t be able to get $1 oysters on a Saturday night until I realized that the restaurant has an additional counter seat area in the back with way more stools than the tiny bar.

The counter, which was like a lunch counter at a diner, turned out to be the best spot to eat oysters because you’re right at the raw bar and the open kitchen where you get a show of the restaurant’s chef preparing the dishes to order.

There’s only one option for the $1 oysters. On the night I was there, they were offering Triton Cove variety, but ran out. So instead my server sold me Miyagi Gems, so I ordered half a dozen. I decided to make it a Saturday night dinner so I also ordered the clam chowder ($9) and a selection from the small plates menu, the hamachi collar ($9).

For Sea Salt’s happy hour, they also offer draft beer at $3 and well drinks for $5. I got a pint of Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale.

The oysters were served with a garlicky mignonette (a bit salty) and cocktail sauce. I felt the clam chowder was really watery despite having a lot of clams and other ingredients. I was intrigued with the idea of eating the hamachi collar, but I realize I like hamachi better raw in sushi than cooked up and topped with red bellpepper salsa and greens.

The Good: Fun counter seating and early oyster happy hour
The Bad: Thin clam chowder

Sunday: EOS Restaurant and Wine Salon
Location: 901 Cole St. (at Carl), San Francisco
PH: 415.566.3063
Web site: www.eossf.com
Time available: Sun. to Thu., 5:30 to 7 p.m.
What I ordered: Dozen oysters, mushroom risotto and glasses of red and white wine
Total* paid: $34.00


EOS’s $1 oyster specials got me out to visit Cole Valley, which is a popular old neighborhood in San Francisco that the residents love but I found to be really tiny. In fact, when I got to the restaurant too early, I had to walk around a few times around the block to kill time until they opened and there were very few shops to check out. I’m pretty sure several neighbors called the police thinking I was scouting the joint.

The wine bar section of the restaurant opened up first, and it actually filled up pretty quick after 5:30 p.m. I got a bar table by the window and ordered a dozen of the $1 oysters. Only one variety is offered but I couldn’t understand what the waitress was saying. I think she said “canal” from Washington State.

The oysters came out in a long trough with mignonette and cocktail sauce. They were in a variety of shapes and sizes, some big and some small. I was surprised they were all the same variety. Although fresh, I felt the oysters were a bit dirty. I kept getting bits of flakes from the shell in my mouth as I ate them. I washed the oysters down with a glass of the white wine special, a 2006 Pinot Grigio from San Gimignano, Italy ($5).

The restaurant was one of the early Asian fusion restaurants, and it still carries many of that influence today. For happy hour, you can order some small plates in the $5 to $10 range, a red and white wine special, $5 well drinks and $6 sake special.

I ended up ordering off the regular menu and got a plate of the wild mushroom risotto ($12), which I ate with a glass of the red wine special ($5, I forgot what it was). It was very enjoyable and filling.

The Good: Interesting restaurant menu if you decide to venture beyond the $1 oysters
The Bad: Oyster shells not cleaned very well, so you might get some flakes while eating

* excludes tax and tip


Just so you know, I visited these places on various days over the last two weeks (I didn’t eat oysters every night for one week straight because my schedule didn’t allow that nor did I think that would be good for my cholesterol.) So by my count, that’s five and a half dozen oysters over a two week period. There were definitely some fun spots I would go back again, and others I would definitely skip. But it’s nice to know that, yes, you can get $1 oysters somewhere in the Bay Area any day of the week.

Here’s a question for you: Are you a slurper or a picker? Do you eat your oysters by picking up the shell and slurping down all the gooey goodness? Or do you use the little fork and pick up the oyster and then place it in your mouth? During my oyster-eating adventure, I did a variety of things. Slurping at times to get some of the oyster wash and other times picking with the fork. Sometimes I ate them plain, with a squeeze of lemon, or with the mignonette or cocktail sauce. (I’m a big cocktail sauce fan so that’s how I generally prefer to eat my oysters.)

So how do you eat your oysters? Slurp or pick?

Looks like I'm not the only one with $1 oysters on his mind. This post came in today as well from Bay Area Bites.

14 comments:

Karen said...

I'm from Louisiana, I almost had a heart attack when I saw the $1 oysters - I'm glad we're down here - we pay $0.35 a piece.

Passionate Eater said...

What an extensive and in-depth review of each place! This is definitely an indispensable $1 oyster research guide. I am sad to say that I have only been to Hog Island for their oysters, and have tried appetizers and dinner at Eos, but not their oysters. Thanks to you, I don't have to try all of them, I can just hit up the ones that you rank the best. (Oh, and yes, I read Karen's comment and I am going to sadly confirm that $1 oysters in Louisiana is not a good deal, but in the Bay Area, it is a GREAT deal.)

Mrs. L said...

I'm a picker. Which is a catch-22 as I really like the oysters with the mignonette and you don't get much if you pick.
What an awesome review, thanks Chef Ben!

Chef Ben said...

Karen, I almost had a heartache reading 35 cents for an oyster!!! :) Here in the Bay Area, oysters go for around $2.50 each, so $1 is a significant deal.

PE, definitely check out Woodhouse, Bacar and Cafe Rouge and let me know what you think!

Mrs. L, that's what I feel. Picking doesn't let you get as much mignonette when just dipping (and sometimes dropping the oyster into the mignonette).

saudade said...

Slurp!

Great post. Thanks for doing all the legwork!

Mark Scarbrough said...

You are absolutely killing me. Oh, for oysters. At this time of year, everything's locked tight in ice where I live. I'm counting the days. Of course, if you'd come out to New England and buy my house so I could move out of the Bay Area, then I could. . . .

foodhoe said...

Ooh, Chef Ben what a great post! I have been to some of these places and my love for oysters is very well documented, but I am a great example of brand loyalty... However, it is good to branch out, and I'm glad to know where not to waste time and $$. I am a slurper, unless the shucker is sloppy and leaves a lot of bits of the shell...

Carolyn Jung said...

How many oysters have you eaten in the past two weeks? My gosh! Getting an early start on the aphrodesiacs for Valentine's Day, are we? ;)

Dave B. said...

Fantastic and detailed survey of $1 oysters! I'm curious to try Bacar and Sea Salt. You went to mostly trendy/spendy places. Have you tried Swan Oyster Depot on Polk? It looks like a cheap fish shack for locals in the know.

Chef Ben said...

Carolyn, I'm the Single Guy! So eating all those oysters went to waste in the love department! Ha!

Dave B., I've never been to Swan Oyster Depot although I was planning to go this season. The crowds often scare me off. I didn't include them in my round up because I didn't hear whether they offer $1 oysters. Do you know if they do, and if so, what day and time?

Bill said...

Great description of your oyster happy-hour tour. Restaurants up here in the Puget Sound area do the same thing -- $1 oysters are a great bargain compared to standard restaurant prices of $2-$4 each.

Happened on your site when I was searching out info on Chelsea Gems oysters -- I live on a small stretch of beach not more than three miles south of Chelsea Farms, where the Gems are grown. I'm also a hobby shellfish farmer who grows his own oysters (and have picked the brain of Tom Bloomfield, the Chelsea Farms manager).

Just a couple of comments. At one time there were good reasons not to eat oysters in months that don't have an 'r' in them (May, June, July and Aug.), all weather related. First, oysters spawn in warmer months, getting soft and mushy in the process. Not dangerous, but not tasty, either. Second, toxic algae blooms (from vibriosis to paralytic shellfish poisoning) are more common in warmer weather, actually making oysters potentially lethal to eat.

Science has largely solved these problems, so today it's okay to eat oysters year round. The summer-spawning problem has been solved by breeding sterile oysters, called triploids (because they have an extra chromosome), that don't spawn. And more frequent and higher-technology water testing has made it possible to know if toxic algae blooms are present. If your oyster comes from a restaurant or fish market, it's safe.

Single Guy Ben said...

Wow Bill, thanks for all the scientific background on oysters. I'm just glad we can get them year round now! Thanks for reading my blog!

dvilleoysters said...

Dont forget the eastern oysters! The best is when you've got oysters from all different areas, you can go on a culinary journey around the coast!

Quality & Sustainability
www.deltavilleoystercompany.com

RRS - Porstmouth, New Hampshire via Adelaide, South Australia said...

Thanks for the great reviews. I thought we had great oysters in Australia until I moved to NH and over here I can find $1 oysters and get to try fresh Maine, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island oysters!

I'm now planning a trip to the Bay and look forward to trying to recreate your journey.

I read somewhere oysters help prevent colds (zinc)... have not had a cold yet this year. LOL.