.The Slimy and the Sublime

The Salty Pearl and Small Change Oyster Bar satisfy ostreaphiles and the bivalve-curious

Chef Lauryn Dakota Holbert understands why some people are put off by oysters. When she’s asked her friends, “Don’t you just love them?”, the replies have ranged from, “Oh my God; I’ve never had one,” to “They’re so slimy!” Oakland’s Small Change Oyster Bar chef loves seafood and said she tried her first oyster when she was a teenager. To encourage people to try oysters, Dakota Holbert starts them out with smaller varieties such as a Kumamoto or Kusshi.   

“Having a broiled oyster or poached in butter—there’s nothing bad about butter!” Dakota Holbert said. “If you’re not familiar with that briny taste of the ocean in your mouth, putting a mignonette or lemon or hot sauce on it is a way to damper the taste.” The texture of oysters, which are similar to mushrooms or eggplant, is what throws people off. It’s the chef’s job to serve a gooey dish in a way that the diner doesn’t notice the off-putting texture. 

Most of Small Change’s oysters come from Tomales Bay Oysters in Bodega Bay and through Berkeley’s Monterey Market. “We have a great protected watershed area where so many oyster beds are laid, so it just made sense to have [the oysters] coming from somewhere really close by,” Dakota Holbert explained. “Especially with seafood, the freshness is really important.” Having taken a tour of the Tomales Bay oyster beds, she said, “Learning about where our food’s coming from is always good for being able to share that with our customers.”

Branden Nichols started Small Change as a pop-up. And Dakota Holbert has been working with him to design a more robust menu for the soon-to-be-opened brick-and-mortar in Temescal. They initially met when the chef was working at Sister Restaurant. Then they met a second time at an event at the Oakland Whiskey Library after Sister had closed. Nichols hired Dakota Holbert to help with the ongoing pop-ups and to run the kitchen in Temescal.

The expanded menu was inspired by classic dishes that are served in seaside towns and by restaurants that specialize in seafood—lobster rolls in Maine, oysters in the South, seafood in Seattle. “The menu in my head is huge, but I had to pare it down to be a reasonable restaurant menu,” Dakota Holbert said. “I wanted to get a nice core with what Branden had started with and then build from there.

“Having grown up in the Bay Area, we’re very spoiled to have such a great breadth of food cultures here,” the chef said. “If you’re on a body of water that provides you with your food, it’s nice to be able to use a protein that works with the staples from your ecosystem, your produce, your vinegars, your wines. We’re lucky to have a lot of great cultural influences here.”

Oysters served on the half shell ($22/$40) are listed at the top of Daniel Pirello’s The Salty Pearl menu in Oakland. For two years, Pirello had a loyal following in Richmond, where he ran the Rocky Island Oyster Company. That was until The Craneway Pavilion’s landlord gave them two weeks’ notice last June to make way for a private pickleball club. The restaurateur said the eviction was unexpected. “The community was devastated. We were devastated,” he remarked. “I had to lay off about 50 people because we had employees at three restaurants in the event center.”

Fortunately, Pirello already had been in the planning stages to open The Salty Pearl in Jack London Square. “It was going to be our second location because Rocky Island had gotten to the point where we had a great following,” he recalled. After securing a beer and wine license, The Salty Pearl opened at the start of 2024. In addition to the “great location,” Pirello explained that the restaurant is in a shared space with the Planted Table.

“We sublease from them and have a pretty unique setup,” Pirello said. “We are open Thursday to Saturday, and the other company uses it during the day and the other days of the week.” This built-in flexibility has afforded Pirello a manageable rent and schedule. “We’re going to add hours once we get more comfortable,” he noted.

Rocky Island served oysters with a more informal approach inspired by the clam shacks of New England. “You could grab a lobster roll and a cup of clam chowder and go sit by the water,” Pirello said. When he was looking for a second location, Pirello wanted to open a date night spot, “something that was more elevated where you could have a nice glass of wine with your crudo and eat a seasonal seafood dish.” He’d had the name “Salty Pearl” in his head for quite some time. When he saw the space in Jack London Square, he knew it would work there as an extension of the original brand.  

Since he first opened Rocky Island, Pirello saw that a connection to maritime cultures was suffused with nostalgia. “People gather with their families to eat these foods,” he observed. His grandfather taught him how to dig for clams. “We would dig for steamer clams out in the marsh behind the beach house he built, and we would cook them together,” Pirello recalled. Eating clams today still transports him back to those childhood memories. 

Oysters, though, differ from the East Coast to the West. “East Coast oysters are typically smaller. They have a shallower cup, and the flavor profiles are very different,” Pirello said. On the East Coast, he added, there are no barbecue oysters. People eat them on the half shell, exclusively, unless they’re having oysters Rockefeller. 

“When I moved out here, I drove up to The Marshall Store, and there were people eating big plates of barbecued oysters with garlic and herb butter and garlic bread,” he recalled. “I dug a little bit deeper, and I think it’s driven by the style of these oysters.”  

An order of a mixed dozen at The Salty Pearl typically includes oysters that have been shipped overnight from Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury, Massachusetts. “They’re able to provide incredibly fresh products to places all over the country,” Pirello said. “And I’m serving really fresh oysters from New England right next to some Marin Miyagi oysters from Tomales Bay. And then there might be some from British Columbia or Washington.”

He likes to post little bios about the oysters they’re serving each week to educate a casual oyster lover. New England transplants, who haven’t had a Cape Cod oyster in decades, have also discovered The Salty Pearl. Said Pirello, “They’re so excited to have them and a cup of clam chowder. It really strikes a nostalgic chord so deeply for them, and that’s what our restaurant is really based on.” 

Small Change, pending open hours, Wed to Sun 3-9pm, 5000 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. 925.212.1897. smallchangeoyster.com.  

The Salty Pearl, open Thu and Fri 4-9pm and Sun 5-9pm, 550 2nd St., Oakland. saltypearl.us.  

Jeffrey Edalatpour
Jeffrey Edalatpour’s writing about arts, food and culture has appeared in SF Weekly, Metro Silicon Valley, East Bay Express and KQED Arts.

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