Saturday, August 10, 2013

Adventure on the half shell

San Buenaventura State Park is a broad, flat grassy expanse tucked between a curve of the 101 Freeway and the Pacific Ocean, in the city of Ventura, California, just south of the Ventura Pier. The day we visited, it was bright and sunny, with a mild breeze, and the huge RV parking lot was filled with the beasts - a schoolbus shuttle ran to the Ventura County Fair up the coast.

Even so, the sheltered grassy space where The Jolly Oyster's food trailers are set up beneath the dunes was quiet and uncrowded. A few families sat at the picnic tables, their bikes parked nearby.


The Jolly Oyster does one thing and does it well - it sells bivalves. The little blue trailer dispenses clams and oysters - and from there it's up to you. Oysters sell for a dollar a piece - we got a dozen.

We brought a cooler with lemons and a chilled bottle of Fume Blanc. And we brought an oyster knife, although I don't remember how long it's been since I used it.

No matter - the friendly people at The Jolly Oyster to the rescue. The girl from the trailer lent us a glove (we had forgotten to bring a kitchen towel) and demonstrated how to open the shells.

We got right to work - here's The Man I Love's technique up close. He's bravely working bare-handed. These were Pacific Oysters, from Maxmar's farms on the coast of Mexico. They farm two types of oysters - the Kumamotos weren't in the day we came - and manila clams. You're welcome to use the grills next to the picnic tables if you'd like to grill them instead - the heat pops the shells open, a lot easier if you're nervous about shucking.

We were too hungry for oysters to wait for coals to heat, so we both got to work. By the time we'd shucked a few, we got the hang of it. It takes a certain amount of force, giving me new respect for the folks who shuck oysters for a job. It's tricky to find the right place to insert the knife-point, and feel the very real struggle the doomed creature puts up for its life, passively clamping itself shut. You'd almost feel bad....if they weren't so delicious. Briny, fresh and creamy, juiced with lemon and dabbed with a bit of cocktail sauce I brought myself, or with the beet mignonette sold at the trailer.

Unless all you want is a quick snack to break up a bike ride, you have to plan ahead for your dinner at The Jolly Oyster. Bring everything but the bivalves - with your own charcoal, pots for steaming clams, utensils, and other delicious things to build a meal, you can have a beach-side clambake all your own. You can even BYOB in this state park.

But who wants to work that hard for their dinner? Fortunately, on Friday - Sunday, The Jolly Oyster also sells prepared foods, from another food truck parked nearby. We wandered over to check the menu.

Here, if you're not up to shucking you can pay a little more for the luxury of having someone do it for you - $10 a half-dozen for Pacifics and $12 for Kumamotos is still a bargain for oysters in Southern California. You can get baked or fried oysters, steamed clams, and also scallop ceviche and steamed stone crab claws - also sourced from the Baja aquaculture that provides the shellfish.

 Here's some panko-crusted fried oysters - perfectly done.

The scallop ceviche was served with tortilla/seaweed chips. The scallops were sweet, and perfectly set off by the fresh and tangy lime juice, cilantro and chopped red onion.

The stone crab claws came with a little tub of clarified butter. The proprietor, Mark, brought them out and gave me a heavy, long-handled tablespoon to whack them with to get at the sweet meat.

Just like whacking a boiled egg, he said. After battling stubborn oysters to the death, why not continue the carnage by whacking open crab claws?

Stone crabs are a Florida delicacy only available in winter months, but now they are being farmed in Baja on the west coast, and are enjoyed year round. Like the Florida crabs, the beast is trapped and returned to the water alive after one of its large claws is harvested. Stone crabs regenerate their limbs, making them a sustainable choice.

These were good and sweet, mopped with the clarified butter or dunked in a saffron-mustard aoli.

Mark, one of the owners of The Jolly Oyster, stopped by our table and talked to us about his business. He left the financial industry to start a sustainable seafood farm. The Jolly Oyster's business model is to start slow, emphasize high quality over growth. His enthusiasm extends to the way he trains his staff - everyone we met there was eager to give us a great experience and an excellent meal.

The afternoon was perfect, the sun warm and the breeze light enough to keep us cool without being chilled. Nearby a tiny girl toddled in the grass while her dad watched. A couple of older girls trod on the surrounding piles of oyster shells, their steps jingling and ringling on the shells as they went.  Bikes rolled by on the path. As the day lengthened, the sun became more golden, and the path over the dunes to the beach grew more inviting.

The Jolly Oyster would be a great place for a seafood-loving family day trip - bring a picnic basket with everything but the shellfish, and enjoy the beautiful setting.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

It's tricky to find the right place to insert the knife-point, and feel the very real struggle the doomed creature puts up for its life, passively clamping itself shut. You'd almost feel bad....if they weren't so delicious.

Murder, She Wrote!

smalltownme said...

I've heard of the Jolly Oyster so I am definitely going there the next time I drive through Ventura.

SUEB0B said...

If you come to Ventura again, we have to get together!

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

Gosh, I am positively jonesing for a trip to the beach with a foodie like you!