Pearls in my Oyster: Raising the Bar in San Francisco
San Francisco fog has broken and the sun creeps out, cutting through the crisp air as I’m loading up my rental after a week-long trip in Napa and San Francisco on my way back to New Orleans. My food buddy and oyster guru, Jim Gossen told me that while I was in town I should check out Swan Oyster Depot and dutifully I headed in that direction before my noon flight. As I walk past a couple of guys standing in the doorway, I realize they are the first of a soon-to-be long line of Swan aficionados.
“Sorry bro,” I say to someone in line as I make my way through the crowd and take my place, wondering who the hell eats oysters at 9:45 in the morning besides Jim and me. I hate lines. The thought of them takes me back to K-Paul’s circa 1979, Galatoire’s the Friday before Mardi Gras—places where you won’t find me, but I’m on vacation and kind of feeling like this may be worth it.
I’m standing on the side of the street where the sun is mercilessly beating down on me and my wife, Margarita. As the sun rises higher into the sky, I see that no one has lifted a finger inside of Swan’s. The stools are still on the bar and no one has informed us what is going on. I’ve been here for 30 minutes and the line is growing. Some locals are behind us and we strike up a conversation. “Make sure when you get in,” one of them tells us, “go to the last spots where you’ll be more comfortable, there’s more leg room.” Great, I think, now I need an instruction book on how to eat here. Ok I’ve been to places where I need a primer course to eat i.e. Katz’s deli where if you don’t know the shtick you
can go hungry.
It’s 10:30 now and I don’t want to talk to anyone except a guy serving me some seafood. I start pacing and getting anxious. It’s now 10:45 and I’m still not slurping on oysters yet. What the hell?
My wife reminds me we aren’t in New York and I realize I’m the only one not perfectly content waiting. Ok, I think, it’s the West Coast, so chill.
Soon, we are rolling. Margarita and I are in. We take the coveted last stools that have enough space for my size and our host/waiter/chef greets us casually as we order some top-notch Napa Chardonnay Stony Hill, one of my favorites. With the first sip, I have a feeling this is gonna be good. Deliberately and methodically, our host–who does everything right in front of you–finishes checking his work area, ices down extra beer, and loads more oysters into the iced cubby where they are kept. There are no menus, only signs on the wall listing the oysters available, the combination seafood cocktails, smoked trout platters, prawns, bay shrimp….
“Whatcha having today?” asks our ever moving host.
“I’m your subject,” I say, finally relaxed. “Bring us whatever you want. We’re game for anything and everything.”
He gives me a look of approval. I always trust my server. They are here every day and if the commitment to quality and hospitality is there, I usually come out on the good side of this brief relationship. Trust is essential in dining, from the time you walk in to the selection of the dishes. I trust this guy with his crisp white apron, white towel over one shoulder, the deftness he displays opening my wine and the intensity in which he organizes and cleans his station.
So here he comes. A little clam chowder to start, thick, creamy, and briny. Next, we are served–in an old-fashioned shrimp cocktail cup, the kind you find at a garage sale or at a neighborhood joint–a seafood cornucopia of impeccable seafood. Combo Cocktail Prawns, a West Coast term for what we call big shrimp down in New Orleans, plus sweet baby shrimp, raw oysters, scallops and shucked mussels. A lemon wedge finishes off the presentation and some cocktail sauce for the diner willing to mess with perfection. With this dish, this guy just moved up to the most important person in my life right now.
He returns with three varieties of oysters on a bed of chipped ice. I only have three words: slurp, swallow, heaven. And three more words: Kumamoto, Blue Points, and Miyagi. How to pick a favorite? It’s like choosing between a single vineyard Montrachet or a single vineyard Chablis. I’ll take it all. Sadly, though, Dungeness crab is not in season and Olympia oysters are very hard to get. Sea urchin is sometimes available, but not today. Just another reason to have to come back.
Next, a plate of smoked salmon and trout appears with some thick-cut iconic sourdough bread. Silky smoky fish, sweet butter, and crusty local bread with a bit of chopped raw onion make for the the finish of a spectacular meal.
I suddenly realize that it’s 11:30 and I’m gonna miss my flight. As I dig deep in my back pocket to take care of the sizable check–cash only thank you very much–I think to myself that good food is never expensive no matter the price. And, after a visit to Swan, I realize that a new bar has been set for oyster bars. My buddies at Casamento’s in New Orleans, though, can rest assured that I didn’t leave my heart in San Francisco.
Adolfo’s Bar for Oyster Bars:
Casamento’s, New Orleans
Swan Oyster Depot, San Francisco
Blue Ribbon Sushi, NYC
Kim Sunée’s San Francisco Picks: