San Francisco is a favorite destination for many in Orange County, for both pleasure and business. With a myriad of choices of what to eat, sometimes it makes sense to go to an area where there are lots of choices and either pick a place or graze at several. An excellent place to do that is at the Ferry Building Marketplace. This historic structure on the water, originally built in 1898 as a terminus for the Union Pacific Railroad and the ferry boats crossing the bay, was once a bustling transportation terminal. Time, bridges, the automobile and other ferry locations took their toll and the building almost disappeared. By the late 1950's it was hidden by a freeway. It stayed that way until the 1990's, when the Loma Prieta earthquake made the freeway unusable. The freeway was torn down and a plan for the ferry building emerged. Remodeled inside and out, with retail, restaurants and office space upstairs, it rose like a phoenix from the ashes to become a vibrant part of the waterfront. On regular days, both locals and tourists shop at the upscale markets and food stores inside. Several days a week, San Francisco holds a huge Farmer's Market out front, a favorite for locals. Dining options are many inside, with emphasis on local products and organic choices. Many shops sample their wares, passing out tastes from organic bok choy to goat's milk cheese and almond brittle.
It is easy to spend several hours at the Ferry Building Marketplace. The Cowgirl Creamery sells not only locally made and European cheeses, but has opened a cafe next door with sandwich choices, cheese plates and more. Chris Cosentino, the chef behind the famous Incanto Restaurant and a Food Network TV personality, opened Boccalone Salumeria, featuring his hand cured meats. These, as with many of the food shops, are available either to go deli-style or as sandwiches and plates to eat in the small table area out front. A folding sign out front leaves no question what they do: “We sell salted pig parts”. Further down the main aisle, the Imperial Tea Court serves hand-picked leaf teas, in bulk or to be enjoyed with a selection of dim sum pastries. Far West Fungi is a unique store, selling several types of fresh and dried mushrooms and other edible fungi. Other shops sell fish, meat, herbs, olive oil, fruit, vegetables and more. Finally, after a hard day's grazing at the Ferry Building Marketplace, Ciao Bella Gelato and Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker can satisfy the sweet tooth or a glass of wine can be had at several places including the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant.
For many people, the destination of choice is the Hog Island Oyster Company. Consistently ranked as one of the top oyster bars anywhere, Hog Island is a little hard to find, located on one of the side walkways behind Farm Fresh to You Market and the Golden Gate Meat Company. The menu is simple, featuring several types of oysters on the half shell, baked oysters and some soups and salads. A grilled cheese sandwich is available for non-seafood eaters as well. A daily special can include White Sea Bass one day or Halibut Cheeks another. Like most of the other places in the Ferry Building, Hog Island believes very much in the locavore concept. This carries over into their wine and beer list, which features exclusively several local beers on draught. Wines include local choice too from Napa, Mendocino, Sonoma and Edna Valley, but also include French, Spanish and New Zealand choices. For non-drinkers, there is an organic iced tea and a house-made lemonade. Seating is simple, primarily bar seats with “oyster central” in the middle.
The soup choices are simple but excellent. A tasty oyster stew is made with plenty of cream and local oysters, but also with an interesting chipotle butter, adding a slight spiciness and smokiness to the humble stew. The clam chowder is very different form most other versions of this popular soup. Bacon, aromatic vegetables, potatoes and cream form the base, but those are the only things in common with the usual chowder. The broth is not thickened with flour, but instead left as a delicate broth. They have gone the exact opposite direction from most places that try to see if they can thicken the chowder enough for a spoon to stand up straight in it. Instead of the typical canned clams, they use a good portion of fresh manila clams in the shell. These clams are also raised in Hog Island's farm. This chowder is fresh and tasty, totally different and extremely satisfying. The flavors are there, but the heaviness of a typical chowder is not. The fresh manila clams also make an appearance as steamers, served with a broth that includes lima beans, Mexican chorizo, leek tops and tomatoes.
Of course, the Hog Island Oyster Company's starring attraction are their oysters. The most popular way of serving them is on the half shell and it is fun to watch them being shucked right in front of you. The speed of the person shucking them is amazing. The menu includes six or more varieties of fresh oysters, depending on the availability that day. A few types, such as the Hog Island Sweetwaters, Hog Island Atlantics and Hog Island Cliffsides, are from Hog Island's own farm. The oyster farm, on the coast north of San Francisco in the tiny town of Marshall, provides sustainable oysters from Tomales Bay. They also have a second farm in Discovery Bay, Washington. With little more than an hour's drive from ocean to restaurant, these oysters are as fresh as can be. The menu lists the location and type of oysters served that particular day. California, Washington, Virginia and Massachusetts are all locations that Hog Island sources oysters from. Oysters are available on trays of 6, 12 or 24 oysters. An excellent way to enjoy them is on the Oyster Bar Mix. This platter features a selection of all the day's oysters. It is a great way to be able to compare the flavor of a Kumamoto from Northern California with Northwest Pacific oysters and East Coast oysters. With such fresh oysters, shucked right at the counter, it becomes interesting to compare the differences in flavor between types. The brininess changes as well as the assertiveness of the oyster flavor. Some, like the Sand Isle Kumamotos, are very delicate, while the Atlantic oysters tend to have more of the ocean flavor. Fresh lemon wedges and Tabasco are supplied as condiments. The platter also comes with mignonette sauce, a delicious accompaniment for the oysters. Mignonette sauce is rarely found in the U.S., with most people here using the basic cocktail sauce of horseradish and ketchup. Consisting of a blend of vinegar, minced shallots and cracked pepper, the sauce enhances the flavor of the oysters rather than overpowering it. It allows the freshness of the oysters to shine and since it is not overpowering, allows the opportunity to taste the variations between the different types of oysters. The mignonette sauce, called "Hogwash sauce", is the perfect accompaniment. Upon request, they do have a house made cocktail sauce for those who prefer it. For an oyster aficionado, the Oyster Bar Mix platter is the ultimate way to go.
For those who prefer their oysters cooked, they can be baked to order. Oysters Rockefeller, the classic presentation, includes spinach, Pernod, onions and cream. Oysters Casino includes bacon, Spanish Paprika, butter and herbs.Finally, for those desiring a simple oyster, they can be ordered as Oysters Tarragon, with butter, tarragon and shallots. Any of these dishes will make a cooked oyster fan happy.
On Monday and Thursday nights, Hog Island Oyster Company offers Happy Hour specials. Regardless of the time though, they are worth a stop when exploring the Ferry Building Marketplace. The service is excellent and they pride themselves on the freshness and commitment to sustainability that they have.
Hog Island Oyster Company
Marketplace Shop 11-1
Ferry Building Marketplace
One Ferry Building
San Francisco, CA 94111