More than anything else, men and women seek happiness. So said Aristotle a couple of thousand years ago. And I'll bet he never even tried barbequed oysters.
Dateline: Marshall, California. The joint is called Tony's. It sits on Highway 1, overlooking Tomales Bay, home of the famed Hog Island Oysters. Tony's is a roadside restaurant with about 25 tables inside. I'd wager that the place doesn't look terribly different now from when it first opened 65 and a half years ago. Décor is not a word I'd associate with this place. It's got that woody waterside shack kind of feel you'd expect from a wooden shack that sits waterside. A crowd that appears to be equal part tourists, locals, and the weekend motorcycle riders cruising the coastal highway populates it. There's a faint hint of sweet smoke in the air.
Don't expect anyone to greet you; you're pretty much on your own to find a table. Take one in the back room if you can, for that's where the grill is. If you're really lucky, you might even snag one of the two tables by the window back there so you can fully take in the bay and the slight breeze it releases.
You needn't bother with a menu, my friends. You're here for one reason and one reason only: BAR-B-QUED OYSTERS.
Even if you detest oysters, I'd encourage you to read on, because these aren't like any oysters you've ever had before. These plump little globes of goodness bring together completely distinct, but brilliant ends of the food spectrum -- bbq on one side and oysters on the other -- to produce something that is immeasurably better than the sum of its parts. Apologies in advance if my endeavor to describe is inadequate.
When you think of bar-b-que, you're generally thinking ribs, brisket, pork or chicken. However, in this case, it's meaty Drake's Bay oysters -- whose source is close enough to see from your seat -- that are the featured ingredient. Drake's are perfect for bbq because of their deep cup and hard shell. Funny, I had an old girlfriend who could be described that way.
These beauties are napped with a dab of garlic butter and a touch of white wine before they're painted with the slightly sweet and smoky house made BBQ sauce, then topped with a little finely chopped fresh garlic. They are then placed on the open grill, shell side down -- in that very same room in which you are seated -- until they come off smoking hot and bubbling in their own natural little cauldron of delectable, savory magic. Pardon me while I salivate at the memory.
By now, you will have started on the bottle of Clos Du Bois Sauvignon Blanc (about $23), accurately advertised as a "crisp white with grapefruit and melon flavors." In my three trips here, I've never even tried a cold Anchor Steam beer, but I imagine that combo wouldn't be too bad either. It's just that I can't fathom the thought of wasting an iota of stomach space that should be devoted exclusively to oysters.
The first round of five oysters arrives on paper plates, doubled up to prevent disaster, delivered to you with pride by the very guy who grilled 'em. Still too hot to eat at this point. You'll notice as you eagerly dabble with your tiny fork that these are large oysters - the size of twin cherries on one stem. Unlike most oysters that are downed in one fell slurp, these babies demand to be taken in two bites. The prize is a big, fat oyster with the slight saline brininess from cooking in its own "liquor", perfectly balanced against a touch of sweetness and slight smokiness from the tomato-based bbq sauce. This is why they invented the word succulent. As you overlook the bay, a mild, salty breeze easing through, the Sauvignon Blanc gliding down... life is good.
Here's the protocol I'd recommend: order them one batch at a time and "cleanse your palate" between each order with a half-dozen raw Hog Island Sweets, harvested from right beneath you in Tomales Bay. For two people, four orders of each kind should do. (That's 44 oysters in total.) Things like cioppino, fish tacos or French fries will tempt you. Do not be. Instead, suck out every last bit of oyster, sauce and garlicky butter, licking the shells clean until they look like they have just been through the dishwasher with Calgon.
The bill will be reasonable and you must pay in cash. On your way out, grab a handful of the free M&M's and mini-Snickers in a bowl on the bar, whose industrial strength sweetness is actually an improbably perfect chaser to a perfect meal.
The pleasure continues after your meal as well, for what awaits you is an automotive adventure back to San Francisco, southbound on Highway 1, a magnificent stretch of breathtaking scenery juxtaposed precipitously against death defying hairpin turns. Driving along one of the most glorious routes imaginable, you'll pass verdant hills and pastures on your left while overlooking the coast to your right, eventually winding through a forest of glorious redwoods. Keep your windows open wide to absorb the sea air, and have music blaring from the classic rock radio station in San Francisco, 107.7 The Bone. Just remember to designate how you navigate the Sauvignon Blanc.
There are many routes to happiness. One is via Highway 1 in Marshall, California. Come hungry to Tony's, but only on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Don't bother going in August. Bring cash with you. And bring me. Please.
"Life is short. Never waste a meal."©
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