Sometimes, like Hemingway, one just wants some oysters and white wine.
Luckily, this is oyster territory. While a drive out to Nick’s Cove is lovely, one can have an authentic oyster experience closer-to-home at the Shuckery restaurant in downtown Petaluma that is sure to satisfy any literary food cravings.
For those who are like me, and like a briney, raw oyster, the Shuckery won’t disappoint (and for those who like their oysters cooked, there are delicious baked or fried ones here too). The always-changing oyster bar features a daily menu on the lighted board of four to five different types.
Varieties locally-grown from Hog Island in Tomales Bay rub shells with others from both coasts, from Prince Edward Island, to Washington and British Columbia, and even all the way down to Baja, where the beloved, formerly locally-grown Drake’s oyster has recently relocated. (And if one is wondering about the freshness of the far-flung or long-lost cousins of the current locally-grown varieties, never fear; oysters keep well when shipped cold.)
Everyone knows that wine country is plentiful with place-based cuisine, but there is something extra special about the brackish bivalve. It’s one of the few local foods that’s been continuously and sustainably consumed in the San Francisco Bay Area for centuries or longer.
According to Oyster Culture, a book about the pleasure and culture of oysters by California authors Gwendolyn Meyer and Doreen Schmid, “Wherever archeological remains of coastal dweller meals are found, oyster shells are sure to be on the menu, going back to neolithic times.”
Indeed, since the pre-colonial era, Coast Miwok people have enjoyed oysters, as have gold rush miners, and the emerging San Francisco elite at the turn of the last century. They remain a favorite at Bay Area restaurants today, including the Shuckery, opened by Jazmine Lalicker and her sister, Aluxa. Widely known as “the oyster girls,” they opened the restaurant to share their love of the oyster.
They share the oyster love with their staff too, who pass it along to patrons. Sina Milton, server, smiles and explains, “We’re all a big family here.” Accordingly, every server is oyster-literate. Moreover, they are trained in the fine art of shucking all varieties of the marvelous mollusk, and rotate between serving the tables and working the oyster bar.
Server and shucker Ryan Day showed the differences in shells and sizes, and casually explained how some oysters become sweeter than others. (One reason can be if they “work out,” or are allowed to tumble in baskets as they grow, as opposed to lying in layers.)
The Shuckery is the kind of place where one runs into friends at the oyster bar while one’s server is shucking selections. In my case, those selections included the sweet and smaller Summer Love from Prince Edward Island, British Columbia’s Chef’s Creek and the aforementioned Drake’s. If one is lucky, one might also find the medium-sized Washington Lucky Pennies, or our own Hog Island’s creamy Sweetwaters.
Think of it this way; the diversity of flavors in an oyster is comparable to the tasting notes of wine or coffee, due to similar reasons like variety, terroir and growing style. For example, the Summer Love oyster is akin to a crisp sauvignon blanc wine, or a sweet Ethiopian coffee, while the meaty Drake’s is more analogous to a full-bodied zinfandel or a hearty french roast.
The Shuckery also has a full dinner menu abundant with local fare, including seafood gems like clams, mussels, salmon and rock cod. Patrons may enjoy everything indoors in the cozy space on the corner of Kentucky and Washington, or on the outdoor patio with a European vibe. One can even have drinks and appetizers in the sumptuous Hotel Petaluma lobby, which adjoins the restaurant.
For a lighter meal, a starter or to share, one may try the clam chowder, rock cod tacos, cauliflower wings, a salad or my current favorite, the tuna tartare, which comes with cassava chips, wasabi and a pickled egg yolk.
Alternatively, one may try pairing a wine with conservas, which are fresh fish and shellfish preserved in flavored oils, and served in a tin with pickled vegetables and a toasted baguette. It’s a delectable way to begin a meal that I haven’t found anywhere else in the area. Happy hour is daily (the restaurant is closed Tuesdays) from 3-6pm, with dinner until 9pm, so one can make a night of it, while always starting with the oysters.
One may order a varied platter to share, settle in with friends, choose a wine and start cooking up ideas for the next big thing. Appropriately, in his Paris memoir, A Movable Feast, Hemingway writes, “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
Speaking of wine, maybe it’s counterintuitive, but trust me on this—I ordered a glass of red with my oysters, specifically the 2021 Private Property Pinot Noir, a treat for $16 a glass. The wine list offers many great options chosen just for seafood and shellfish, with enticing choices from the local Sonoma and Russian River, all the way to France and Spain.
While of course the wine is divine, one would be hard-pressed to leave without lingering for an after dinner drink from the delectable cocktail menu. The Shuckery’s cocktail collection is in collaboration with Alfie Turnshek, who prioritizes fresh ingredients and sustainable practices in cocktail creation. My personal recommendation, the Film Noir.
It’s an easy win for date night, spontaneous out-of-town guests or meeting with friends. As Pistol says to Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, “Why then, the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open.”
Or one can just have Ryan open it at the Shuckery.
The Shuckery is located at 100 Washington St., Petaluma. For more information, call 707-981-7891 or visit theshuckeryca.com.