Epic West Coast Oyster Tasting at Waterbar
The oyster blogging community is a small one, but if you look hard enough, you can see that it brims with passion and personality.
A couple years ago, I stumbled across a fellow oyster blogger, the SF Oyster Nerd, who also happens to work at Waterbar. I remember reading his very first, and very good post and felt giddy to discover someone who is just as meticulous and obsessed with oysters as I am. I became an instant fan.
I have always been taken by how powerful oysters are in bringing people and communities together. You wouldn't expect it, nor necessarily call it out, but this humble little bivalve has an incredible ability to connect people far and wide. In my case, it was to seek out a fellow ostreaphile on the opposite side of the country.
Bellying Up to the Raw Bar at Waterbar
The oyster bar at Waterbar is a beauty. The first thing we noticed when we approached the oyster bar was a gorgeous glass-enclosed display of the day's variety, each in its own wooden basket and labeled by provenance on thin black-painted strips of wood. A few sprigs of seaweed and hearty looking (cooked) lobsters also decorated the raw bar stall. We sat down just to the right of the display. At the center of the U-shaped bar sat a tiered shelf of premium liquors. Above it hung brightly colored glass orbs of all different sizes. A few other patrons were sprinkled along the bar across the way. It was the perfect getaway lunch spot.
So as we sat at the bar, I began to wonder if the shucker in front of us was the SF Oyster Nerd. He had dark brown, ruffled up hair and hipster-ish glasses. Kind of nerdy, maybe? Or maybe not. He didn't look up, so I didn't want to ask. A waiter came by and took our order of a few dozen oysters. Still nothing. No word. Was I getting stood up on? Then, out of nowhere, a hand sets down a Dexter #22 wooden-handled oyster knife in front of me. "I believe this is for you." (I needed an oyster knife to shuck in Napa and was afraid TSA would confiscate mine, so I turned to @SFOysterNerd for some help.) Greg—the surprisingly-not-so-nerdy-looking oyster nerd—gave me a quick fist bump, a short synopsis of his history at Waterbar, and then proceeded to shuck oysters nearby.
New Zealand & West Coast Oyster Flight
The raw bar menu had 15 oyster varieties, including three from New Zealand. This was an exceptional treat. I managed to snap a photo of the tasting description:
New Zealand is well known for its incredibly pristine waters and plentitude of seafood that is sourced from them. The North Island of New Zealand in particular has some of the cleanest and most closely monitored watersheds in the world, making them ideal areas for oyster culture. Oyster farmers in these areas have also adopted a rare and unique way of cultivating their crop. Rather than growing oysters in an artificial hatchery, most New Zealand farmers harvest wild baby oysters, just like the natives of New Zealand had done in the pre-colonial era. The wild seed and rustic, yet attentive style of farming not only creates a product of the highest standard, but ensures that the oyster population is completely natural and beneficial to the surrounding ecosystem. We are currently sourcing three of these most praised and popular oysters from the North Island waters.
The menu proceeds with a brief flavor profile for each oyster and where they're from/how they're grown. Meanwhile, Greg also accompanied the info with a phenomenal geography lesson on napkin (see above). It was really nice having the locations be put into context. Anyway, here's the official description followed by my take on them.
Clevedon Coast from Kawakawa Bay, New Zealand
Grown on large stick bundles by fourth generation farmer Callum McCallum of Pakihi Marine Farms in the Kawakawa Bay since 1986, the Clevedon Coast is a deep-cupped oyster with a strong salty start, firm texture, and a savory seaweed finish.
The three Clevedon Coasts that I had were light in brininess. Although to be fair, the oysters were so fat, that there was barely any liquor to sip! The meat was quite firm, but it also had a delicate texture that reminded me of pana cotta. Silky and smooth... wobbling just a bit upon chewing. Hints of nori were definitely present. These oysters had a crisp, clean finish. Hmm... Clevedon Coast, Clevedon Coast. The name sounded so familiar that I was sure that I've had them before. So I looked back into my archives. Turns out that I tried them for the very first time exactly three years ago! Here was my first impression way back then:
My first non-North American oyster! These stunning giants (3.5 inches) were deep-cupped and the shells were brushed with a thin coat of greenish-yellow algae. As I bit into the plump flesh, a shockingly fresh splash of sea water first hit my palette. It wasn’t as salty as I was expecting it to be. The meat was creamy in texture and had an earthy flavor that I can only describe as “umami.” A hint of seaweed clung to the back of my mouth after chewing. I really enjoyed this oyster; it was a hearty, clean, and delicious. My only concern would be the size for beginners. It may be a little daunting, but I guarantee that it’s well worth the bite.
Coromandel from Coromandel Peninsula, NZ
Cultivated various ways by a cooperative of small farmers off the rustic and rural Coromandel Peninsula, Coromandel oysters are arguably the most widely consumed oyster in New Zealand. They are plump, briny, firm and have a very unique tropical fruit finish.
I recently introduced Coromandels to my colleagues at the office, and they tasted just as great here as they did back on the East Coast. These plump little gems were firm, but smooth and pillowly in texture. Compared to the Clevedon Coasts, the Coromandels possessed more minerality and fruity sweetness. Plus, they are also oh-so gorgeous to look at.
Kaipara from Kaipara Harbor, NZ
Intertidal basket grown by former viticulturist Dan Dollimore in Kaipara Harbour on the Western side of the North Island, the Kaipara oyster is buttery, rich, briny and finishes with a strong ocean flavor and hints of cucumber-citrus.
Now these are brand new to me! Kaipara's possessed a lighter, crisper, and cleaner flavor than the rich, buttery Coromandels. They were on the chewier side with a similar mouthfeel as perfectly sauteed calamari. I detected some really interesting vegetal notes, perhaps sprouts would best describe what my palate picked up.
I very much appreciate having the grower names and affiliating companies in the New Zealand oyster descriptions. In fact, Waterbar supplies the names and companies of nearly all the oysters on their menu. It shows a really deep care and understanding of their offerings, as well as respect for the growers. This was certainly something that I'd be very hard pressed to find in NYC, but think we absolutely need.
Once we finished the New Zealand sampler and were about to move on to the other oysters still on my list, Greg brought out a supplementary plate of three kinds that we hadn't ordered. He wanted us to try both of the Kumamotos on the menu, as well as a very special "not yet available to general public" oyster from Marshall. The first Kumamoto was from Humboldt Bay, grown by Coast Seafoods using long-line culch. The second was a Shelton Kumamoto from Oakland Bay by Taylor Shellfish. The two shared a couple of similarities, but ultimately quite different from one another.
Humboldt Kumamoto from Humboldt Bay, California
Briny and mildly sweet, these Kumo's had a crisp and clean finish to them. The texture was a little jelly-like, but still had a bit of chew as well.
Shelton Kumamoto from Oakland Bay, Washington
The oceanic Gusher -- these Kumo's were incredibly juicy! The flavor was quite a bit more metallic than the Humboldt Kumo, which ended up lingering a long ways after.
Marshall Select from Tomales Bay, California
These rare treasures are not yet available broadly, but lucky Marin County locals can occasionally find small batches of them in Marshall (a small town on the Northeast side of Tomales Bay). Instead of using the typical rack & bag grow out method, these oysters are bottom cage cultured. They possessed an earthy and even somewhat mushroomy flavor in their plump, mildly briny meat. I quite enjoyed them and look forward to perhaps seeing more of them in the future!
Lastly, we tasted four more varieties grown in nearby Tomales Bay. These were perhaps some of the most complex and sophisticated tasting oysters I've had the opportunity to experience on the West Coast. They're certainly not "sweet and easy going" like the lovable Kusshi or Fanny Bay.
Cove Miyagi by Scott Zahl of Cove Mussel Company from Tomales Bay, CA
Well, hello there! These petite Miyagi's were incredibly briny, chalk full of bold marine qualities. By concentrating and chewing, it was easy to pick up minerality and subtle notes of turnip and melon rind. I liked the mouthfeel as well as the crisp and clean vegetal finish. This is definitely a great oyster to explore for those seeking something a bit more adventurous and nuanced.
Marin Miyagi by Marin Oyster Co. from Tomales Bay, CA
These gorgeous looking oysters had a deeply briny and earthy taste. When I was chewing these Miyagi's, I had imagined eating a mollusk that chugged a lot of mineral-rich seawater. They're supple and creamy, voluptuous in both flavor and texture.
Drakes Bay by the Lunny family from Drakes Estero, CA
Ah, the Drakes Bay oyster. Bold, unapologetic, controversial. This oyster has been the talk of the town, but for reasons you wouldn't expect. For those who don't know, the Drakes Bay Oyster Company has been in a lengthy, heated legal battle with the National Park Service about whether or not they can continue to operate on park lands. I won't get into the back and forth here, but at the end of the day, I support the oysters and the oyster farming community. So to do my part, I definitely had to try some of these notorious bivalves. The Drakes Bay oyster packs a mean punch of brininess and bitterness. The meat is surprisingly soft. It's wild and unforgiving, perhaps somewhat like how nature truly is. It's really not your typical oyster -- or oyster farming operation.
Point Reyes Virginica by Martin Strain of Pt. Reyes Oyster Co. from Tomales Bay, CA
Last but not least, I tried an East Coast transplant. The Point Reyes Virginica is an Atlantic native oyster grown in Pacific waters. Some East/West mash-ups produces your everyday Brad Pitt of oysters: best of all worlds. In the case of the Point Reyes, it created a quirky, yet tasty little guy. The liquor had a medium brininess to it, more brackish than the others. The Pt. Reyes Virginicas that I got were very petite and skinny. The oyster itself also looked a bit odd -- the meat was dark with an almost deep purple hue to it. To be honest, I was a little intimidated at first. But then just decided to go with it. In the end, I was quite charmed.
After having around two dozen oysters, I had my fill. Now it was time to head out to Napa to pick up another six dozen or so Hog Island oysters for the weekend (will post about that later). I thanked Greg for the terrific experience. The shucking and presentation at Waterbar was great. I especially enjoyed getting a chance to explore so many different California varieties all at once. It was truly a memorable tasting of a Merroir far from home.
P.S. In my experience, the weekend after Labor Day is probably the best time for New Yorkers to trek out to the West Coast. The weather is phenomenal (at least from what I've encountered in the last couple of years) and the oysters are in their prime. Flights are reasonably priced and there are less tourists all around. Come to think of it, It was about four years ago that I was last in the Bay Area, enjoying my very first Hog Island Sweetwater. Time flies!