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Slurp's Up

The oyster house as staycation destination

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WHEN IN ROME A meal at Saltwater must begin with a plate of briny bivalves.
  • WHEN IN ROME A meal at Saltwater must begin with a plate of briny bivalves.

We are lingering over oysters and salads at Saltwater in Inverness and wondering in the aftermath of lunch about all the what-to-do-next ideas at our disposal: the options out here in West Marin are limitless.

Check out the shipwreck in Tomales Bay? Plunge into deep Inverness, the upper reaches of Pt. Reyes National Seashore, way out at the Tule Elk Preserve? Grab the dogs and head to remote Kehoe Beach for a romp? Pop in at the Vedanta Society retreat for some spiritual soul-scrubbing?

Decisions, decisions. But meanwhile, it's a pitch-perfect Sunday afternoon in West Marin, a sunny, late January weekend spent dancing between the El Niño raindrops, and Saltwater is brimming with full tables of revelers, solo diners and couples at the short bar. It's a weekend for regrouping after the recent big rains: clean the deck, sweep the leaves, get ready for the next barrage of blustery rain and wind. It's coming.

For now, a cool, clear respite. And Saltwater presents itself as the perfect complement: clean, crisp and wholly competent in its execution and flavorful designs, offering exposed white rafters and an overall vibe of well-appointed casual. Today it feels like a meet-and-greet zone for the workers, artisans and imp-souls who call this part of the world home, who work in and around Inverness and who head to Saltwater for a weekend kickback of chitchat over lunch.

It is practically a given that you are going to order oysters, and Saltwater offers a $40 "raw deal" that features a dozen swimming in their liquor, from various ports of call: Hog Island Sweetwaters, Chelsea Gems from Washington state and Island Creeks all the way from Duxbury Bay, Mass. (no relation to the nearby reef).

Saltwater also offers a trio of cooked-oyster options, and Sunday being Sunday, the day of bacon (and rest), we go for the Devils Oyster barbecue sauce, bacon from Devil's Gulch Ranch, parsley and butter. The spicy, juicy bivalves are first to emerge from the kitchen of chef Matthew Elias, with the platter of raw jewels to follow. We're keeping it light today, with two accompanying salads to cleanse the palate and seal the health-lunch deal. The County Line chicory salad ($16) is dotted with sunflower seeds and feta, while the Coke Farm beet salad ($17) is a frizzy heap of mustard frills, chunks of Rogue River blue cheese and toasted pistachios. Sections of juicy, firm beets lurk below the mustard frills, slathered with a patina of the honey-mustard dressing that zings-up the salad without being overly cloying about it.

The lunch menu also features a trio of pizzas ($18–$19) and a couple of homey sandwiches ($17)—bacon with green tomato aioli, roasted radicchio, brioche and pickles, and a grilled cheese on sustaining slabs of Parkside levain.

It's immediately clear that Saltwater is as much a part of the community out here as, say, Perry's Deli. At least for today, we're not seeing the hordes of cyclists who zip through nearby Pt. Reyes Station on any given weekend in their ultra-chic get-ups, hogging the line at the Bovine Bakery. Saltwater instead comes off as a total see-and-be-seen neighborhood place, loaded down with locals enjoying a micro-staycation over oysters and/or a serving of that Double 8 Dairy buffalo-milk gelato.

The pizzas are tempting but for another day—if only they delivered the smoked-cheddar and merguez pie!—and, speaking of community, the restaurant is just now trying to raise funds to replace its 30-year-old pizza oven. Saltwater's been going strong for almost four years as a neighborhood joint, and owner Luc Chamberland put out a recent call to regulars to help pay for the new oven. He hooked up with the restaurant investment group EquityEats; check out the plan at equityeats.com.

The conversation has run a few avenues this afternoon: the awesomeness of actual, hand-held maps, the mineral content of the various oysters splayed before us and the absence of a righteous hot tub emporium in these parts. Sorely needed.

The hot tub conundrum notwithstanding, there are a million staycation options to think about. Mt. Vision has 1,282 feet of nearby elevation to conquer, a pleasantly mellow adventure. Heart's Desire Beach, on Tomales Bay—that's a little ways up the Sir Francis Drake Boulevard from here. The Bolinas Ridge Trail beckons across Highway 1, and back in the Pt. Reyes National Seashore, the trails are epic, legion, endless and probably kind of muddy right about now: Estero Trail, Meadow Trail, Horse Trail, Bucklin Trail, Fire Lane Trail, Woodward Valley Trail . . .

The Saltwater menu choices are thankfully not nearly as overwhelming as the what-to-do staycation options. A decision is reached as the salad plates are hustled away: it is time for a nap.

Saltwater, 12781 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Inverness. 415.669.1244

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