Situated along the shores of a marshy, creek-fed natural harbor with the world's grandest ocean at its back door, the Bay Area (you might have noticed) is a swell place to chow down on some fresh seafood. Here the discerning fish fancier can sample a year-round smorgasbord of subaquatic protein without overindulging in any particular species: opah, sea urchin, and octopus in the springtime; anchovies, albacore, squid, and swordfish through the summer; shark, yellowtail, and sea bass in the autumn; a wintertime cornucopia of crab, oysters, smelt, and salmon. There are sardines, sand dabs, and sole throughout the year, and if you weary of all this Pacific bounty there are planeloads of lobster, crawfish, ono, and bluefish just waiting for a date with the tartar sauce.
To serve up all of that (hopefully) fresh pescado, we locals have evolved several genres of seafood establishment over the years, each with its own individual aspects and attributes. There's the century-old mahogany-paneled fish house with the charcoal grill, the crusty sourdough and the crustier waiters; the red-plush Chinatown dining hall with the big aquarium and the garlicky flatfish, served head, tail, bones, and all; the high-end temple to cuttlefish sorbet, truffled hamachi, and a soupcon of sevruga; the humble old marble-topped oyster bar where the best crabs, scallops, and bivalves usually end up.
Then there's the place that's within actual eye distance of an actual body of water. Sometimes it's on a sandy beach, sometimes it overlooks a glittering yacht basin, sometimes it's on a wharf where the trawlers of a century ago have been replaced with confectionary shops and crystal emporiums. These seafood joints tend toward a polished-nautical look, with fishnets and anchors among the standard decorative touches. The bar is the establishment's central focus, and landlubbers in tropical shirts sipping big colorful concoctions are a not uncommon sight. The lovely waterfront vistas send the subliminal message that the flounder you just ordered will be wrestled out of the briny in the next few minutes. And the kitchen, for the most part, is preserved in the aspic of a few decades ago, offering a chain-restaurant bill of fare heavy on the calamari, chowder, scampi, and deep-fried what have you.
The Oyster Reef, a vintage-1984 seafood restaurant perched on the Oakland Estuary marina, fits the concept nicely. Tucked away behind a Homewood Suites motor inn just off the 880 about a mile south of Jack London Square, it has the low-slung look of a Reagan-era Marina del Rey hotspot. The interior is primarily floor-to-ceiling windows with tranquil views of bobbing pleasure craft and Alameda across the water. The ambience is Lido Deck casual, with a large bar-lounge area dominating the front of the house, a stage for live music, and wings on either side for dining apart from the dancing, drinking throngs. But although much of the menu is as robustly institutional as you might expect, there are several tasty options for anyone looking for a nibble to go with their music and Saturday night cocktail.
One such cocktail is the mango mojito, a cool, refreshing, sweet-tart concoction of mint leaves, lime juice, mango rum, sugar, and ice with just enough soda to sparkle things up. It was the best starter on a menu that included rubbery, tasteless jumbo prawns ostensibly sautéed with garlic butter and white wine, watery dipping sauce on the side; sweet, soggy crab cakes that were scorched black on the bottom; and something called oysters VernTex, enormous blobs of overbreaded, overcooked protoplasm buried under a heavy, gloppy garlic butter sauce. The New England clam chowder was equally undistinguished: porridge-thick and bland, it tasted more of flour and filler than bivalves.
At this point one might give up the ghost and order another round of mojitos, but the entrée menu offered a few pleasant surprises. The linguine with clams was irresistible: a luscious, comforting platter of olive oil-scented pasta, chopped garlic, and a dozen Manila clams on the half shell, nothing more. The mild-flavored fried catfish wasn't quite as satisfying despite its crunchy cornmeal crust and moist, tender flesh. But the day's fresh catch, a salmon filet, was perfectly luscious, rich and meaty, with a creamy beurre blanc adding its own tangy lushness. Each entrée comes with the same institutional sautéed vegetables and your choice of pretty good saffron rice or stiff, flavor-free mashed potatoes.
The best thing about the Oyster Reef is its dessert menu. Despite its daunting moniker, the white chocolate rum cheesecake is a pleasantly fluffy example of the genre, with a nice hint of butterscotch, plump raisins adding juicy accents, and a rich graham cracker crust. The chocolate mousse is light and creamy, with an undertone of peppermint delivering a bit of sweet heat. Best of all, though, is the chocolate brownie, a moist, dark, dense, bittersweet slice of pure pleasure studded with crunchy walnuts.
There are just enough meat-free items on the menu to keep the vegetarian in your party moderately satisfied. Starters include Caesar salad and breaded-and-fried mushrooms and zucchini strips. There's a linguine preparation with fresh vegetables and your choice of a creamy saffron or basil marinara sauce, and among the side dishes are rice, sautéed vegetables, garlic bread, and mashed, baked, and french-fried potatoes.
Oyster Reef service is friendly and welcoming if occasionally forgetful, and on Friday and Saturday nights a live band plays several sets of creamy soul music that tends to overwhelm the dining experience but is just right for a night of big colorful cocktails with a view of the water just beyond the window.
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