Road tripping for oysters (especially on a beautiful summer day) is a must-do on Bay Area bucket lists, with those roads all leading to sleepy Tomales Bay. That estuary in western Marin County, CA (as far west as you can go, actually) is famous for its thriving oyster aquacultures, and fans of those little bivalves are spoiled for choice: they can slurp waterside at the Marshall Store, reserve a picnic table at Hog Island Oyster Company, or cram a cooler full from the Tomales Bay Oyster Company to bring home.
If it’s not always picnic-perfect weather, not to worry; the storied bivalve hits its peak in the winter, when they’re flinty, cold and sparkling-fresh. Once you get the hang of your shucking technique, slurp those little Pacific “sweet waters” down raw (they won’t ask for lemon or mignonette, just a sip of icy Sauvignon Blanc to wash them down) and save the larger Kumamotos for grilling.
Barbecued oysters are a regional specialty in those parts, often served with a tangy BBQ sauce or splash of Tapatio. They’re a terrific way to introduce the briny pleasures of the oyster to those who might be otherwise averse, and a special treat in those months lacking an “R”. (Oysters are perfectly safe to eat year-round, but they spawn in the summer months, giving their meat a cloudy, creamy texture that’s considered inferior on the raw bar but fantastic when barbecued. Kumamotos and some Atlantic varieties are tasty all year, raw or cooked.)
Inside and dry and out of any winter weather, prep your oysters for the grill. Sweat a few cloves of minced garlic in butter, add a splash of lemon and a hit of dried parsley and set the pan aside. Scrub and shuck the oysters (medium size works best), trying to hang on to as much of their liquor as possible. Each half-shell gets a scant teaspoon of garlic butter, then a light dusting of seasoned breadcrumbs and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Grill them until the sauce starts to bubble (2-3 minutes at most) and then (carefully!) take them off the heat with tongs.
If you ever enjoyed Oysters Rockefeller, or liked them Mornay-style, you’ll get a savory kick out of these, with the garlicky topping flattering the clean, briny sweetness of the shellfish. You probably won’t want to bother going back indoors to eat them, so just hover over the grill and knock them back. And you’ll also find proof that everything does indeed taste better outside (even if your Wellies and umbrella get a workout), especially when you’re a stone’s throw from the sea.