The Jolly Oyster
San Buenaventura State Beach
901 San Pedro St.
Fifteen years ago two English friends, Mark Reynolds and Mark Venus, opted out of “the system” (Reynolds had been in international finance) and had the idea of farming and retailing bivalve mollusks in Baja California. With master’s degrees in aquaculture from Stirling College in Scotland, the partners developed beds in the Laguna Manuela area in Baja, California, started a business (Bay Oyster Company) and began a long process of perfecting aquafarming in this remote and pristine location. Oysters thrive in uncontaminated algae-rich waters, and the Baja Oyster Company now farms Pacific and Kumamoto oysters and Manila clams, and has added beds in San Quintin Bay.
To the very great benefit of Ventura County, and Southern California in general, those scrumptious bivalves are now available, daily, in the middle of the picnic area at San Buenaventura State Beach. And how slurpingly scrumptious those mollusks are. My fellow food reviewers and I were initially going to buy the oysters and clams at The Jolly Oyster, and then have a picnic “slurp-off,” recording our impressions and then transcribing our group conversation about the gastronomic delights. Alas, the other two reporters had personal emergencies the day of our picnic, so I wound up going with a friend and having a smaller and more spontaneous beachside dining experience.
The Jolly Oyster only sells the freshly delivered clams and oysters. It does not prepare them, shuck them or serve them. It is up to you to bring whatever you need (knife, towel, accompaniments, beverages, etc.) if you want to eat at a table there. Although the parking fee for the beach is $10, it is possible just to drive into the picnic area (where the well-marked blue Jolly Oyster truck resides) and park for free for 20 minutes. If you have forgotten to pack any of your oyster needs in your car, you can buy from The Jolly Oyster a proper shucking knife, charcoal, hot sauce and so forth.
What is also available at The Jolly Oyster, much of the time, is a chance to visit with owner Mark Reynolds, who is a very friendly font of mollusk knowledge. He will probably just have gotten back from Baja with another shipment of the fresh mollusks, and either he or Cecilia (The Jolly Oyster’s amazing retail gourmet goddess) will be more than happy to show you shucking techniques and regale you with all sorts of oyster lore. Prices are unbelievable (between $1 and $1.40/oyster; $8/pound clams), and the phenomenal freshness of the bivalves is mouthwatering. Properly opened and slurped, the salty and marine flavor of the Baja seawater is present in every slurped bite, and one can see why oysters have been a savored delicacy for centuries and throughout the world.
In the food world, the FDA considers any foodstuff produced (grown, farmed, etc.) within 400 miles of its final destination as “local,” so those consumers insistent on fresh, local and organic food have a complete win at The Jolly Oyster. For my recent picnic I bought about a dozen oysters and a pound of clams. I brought a shucking knife, a pan, charcoal, water, some butter, shallots, garlic and lemons, a baguette, and had some of the best steamed clams I’ve ever eaten. That day, the smaller Kumamoto oysters had a wonderful creamy, salty, melony taste. The larger Pacifics were slightly brinier, but still delicious. According to owner Mark Reynolds, each batch will have a slightly different taste, depending on the seawater, tides and so forth.
I’m sorry that my fellow food writers and I were not able to do our joint slurp fest for this review. I do guaranteel, however, that if you wander onto Ventura State Beach and treat yourself to the offerings at The Jolly Oyster, you will have an unforgettable experience. And will probably become as addicted to those marvelous mollusks as we are.F
For more information, go to www.thejollyoyster.com.