There’s a ritual my husband Dan and I share during our frequent visits each year to our former hometown, San Francisco. We drive straight to our favorite hotel on 3rd Street near Market, check the car, drop the bags, and then walk directly to the Ferry Plaza Market on the Embarcadero. Once past those historic doors (my grandfather who worked the ferries walked through them, too), it’s a quick left toward the grocery store. We cut straight through to the back side and join the long and winding line to get into Hog Island Oyster Bar. Let me tell you, it’s well worth the wait.
There is little that rivals the delight and satisfaction of slurping pristinely fresh oysters, and washing them down with sips of a spectacular, chilled dry white wine. But that’s only the start of our excellent meal at Hog Island’s comfortable oyster bar where we can indulge and enjoy the show: Watching the experts shuck hundreds of bivalves, and the cooks at the stove preparing fresh clam chowder ala minute. Hog Island’s outstanding soups, gumbos, and shellfish stews, started with live shellfish, are always our favorite second courses. This kitchen is also famous for their decadently rich, grilled cheese sandwiches but I stick with the seafood here. We just don’t have anything that compares in SLO County and why not, but I digress. On the other hand we do have two top-notch seafood specialists that provide us with locally grown, sustainably-raised bivalves and mollusks—the Morro Bay Oyster Company and The Abalone Farm in Cayucos.
When I recently saw our very special oyster farmer, Neal Maloney, at Savor the Central Coast, I told him if I were wealthy I’d back him in opening a clone of Hog Island’s San Francisco oyster bar in Morro Bay.
“Hog Island is one of the biggest buyers of my Pacific Gold Oysters,” said Maloney, owner of the Morro Bay Oyster Company. His popular Pacific Gold oysters are sold at all of the best dining establishments in SLO County, at Tognazzini’s Dockside in Morro Bay, or off his barge docked north of Beach and Embarcadero near Morro Rock. Maloney’s fabulous local bivalves were the featured oysters during the inaugural Morro Bay Oyster Festival last year.
This year, Maloney has partnered up with event-coordinator extraordinaire Jacqueline Delaney in creating the second annual Morro Bay Oyster Festival, which is bigger and better than the first one. Now it takes place on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 18 and 19, beginning with a multi-course dinner at the Inn at Morro Bay with restaurateur and super chef Bradley Ogden from San Francisco. This event is similar to Sunset magazine’s adventure tours, and you’re gonna love this ride.
It starts out at the Inn at Morro Bay, with a field trip via luxury coach to The Abalone Farm in Cayucos. There, you’ll enjoy cocktail hour and the Morro Bay Oyster Company’s raw oyster bar under a dazzling Central Coast sunset. The Abalone Farm’s charismatic general manager, Brad Buckley, will personally provide a tour of the farm, showing abalone at every stage of life, including the stage where you can’t see them with the naked eye (I know this from experience, it’s that cool). At 6:30 you’ll be transported back to the Inn at Morro Bay for a 7 p.m. dinner experience of a lifetime.
Chef Ogden’s four-course dinner features abalone two ways, abalone cioppino, braised beef short-ribs, and devil’s food cake, all paired with local wines. It’s sure to impress the most savvy local foodie. Ogden, named “Best Chef California” by the James Beard Foundation, has restaurants in Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Larkspur, and that list of cities is growing. He received his due recognition when he was but an aspiring chef and honor student attending the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Hyde Park, New York in 1977.
When Ogden rose to national prominence as executive chef at Campton Place Hotel in San Francisco, I was one of the many interns from the California Culinary Academy (CCA) he brought into his bustling kitchen. He once told me if it wasn’t for the volunteer work of CCA students, he couldn’t run such an extraordinary kitchen (no kidding). Even in the mid-’80s such food costs were prohibitive. It was an excellent experience for this aspiring chef. This dinner isn’t for the budget-minded at $225 per person (all inclusive) but you’ve got to ask yourself—what’s it worth to be part of this exclusive, ultimate dining experience? For most people, no matter what your budget, the Morro Bay Oyster Festival on Saturday at the Morro Bay Golf Course offers a huge bang for your buck. For $28 per person (kids $10) your ticket includes the all-day music festival, and you need only purchase your food and drinks. Water is free and you can bring your own bottle to refill, or buy a bottle that you can refill as often as necessary.
The Morro Bay Oyster Festival was originally a project Delaney created for OPTIONS Family of Services, a nonprofit serving the people with disabilities, people with developmental difficulties, and people with traumatic brain injury. “Options didn’t want to be involved in creating events anymore,” Delaney explained. Yet to the credit of Delaney and Maloney who partnered up to make this event even better, they are keeping Options as a beneficiary of this wildly popular, alfresco celebration.
You can park free on the Embarcadero, and ride a free shuttle to the event. Or, new this year, you can park at the event for $25. Hardly for profit, the fee helps pay for security, state park fees, police protection, and the use of two fairways for the festival. Among the great additions to the contests besides the chef’s competition is the shucking contest. Many outstanding food trucks will serve foods you can purchase all day.
This year 10 wineries are participating, all of them featured in a “grape garden” where you can taste from each of the brands. You can also buy wine and beer at various beverage stations which you pay for with beverage tickets you purchase when you check in. It all takes place from noon to 8 p.m. with tickets available at the gate. Or buy your tickets and parking in advance at centralcoastoysterfestival.com. “Please remember to bring jackets, blankets, and lawn chairs,” Delaney pointed out. “It gets chilly at night next to the bay but it’s really pretty with all of the structures lit up.”
Contact Cuisine columnist Kathy Marcks Hardesty at email@example.com.