Oysters on the Waterfront
Jack’s Oyster Bar & Fish House bridges ultra-cool with old school.
Jack's Oyster Bar & Fish House.
Photo by Lori Eanes
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Oakland’s Jack London Square may never rival San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf and embarcadero. Let us hope. And I’m not talking about the perpetually stalled Jack London Square Market. (Does anybody talk about it anymore?) JLS just doesn’t have the mass tourist appeal of, say, Ghirardelli Square, Pier 39, or the Ferry Building. But it does have a “contemporary restaurant corridor,” as JackLondonSquare.com puts it. And I’m not talking about Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, although nothing in the stretch between the Amtrak station and the ferry terminal has more character and authentic local color than good old Heinold’s.
Said “restaurant corridor” has grown increasingly “contemporary” in recent years with the arrival of Bocanova, Haven, Forge, and Lungomare, all building on the dining foundation established by such stalwarts as Scott’s Seafood, Kincaid’s, and Il Pescatore Ristorante. The newest addition, Jack’s Oyster Bar & Fish House, continues the culinary rejuvenation of Oakland’s waterfront. It’s the next-door sister (or brother, given its name and vibe) of Bocanova, both helmed by chef-owner Rick Hackett. The 100-seat restaurant is decidedly hip in some respects: the concrete floor, the gray-and-white wall art (depictions of sea life, and a large, wheat-paste mural of Oakland images), the bare-wood tables and blue banquettes, the 20-seat raw bar, the craft cocktail program, the modernist plating of many dishes, the offering of small plates, the commitment to “local, sustainable, fresh” ingredients, and the kitchen team—executive chef Peter Villegas, chef de cuisine Nate Gabriel, executive sous chef Joey Malim—with credits that include La Mar, Park Tavern, Luce, Limon, and Foreign Cinema. But Jack’s also bridges the gap between ultra-cool and old school, with servers wearing plaid shirts, the menu design harking back to a casual chowder-house style, flat-screen TVs airing baseball and football games, and a focus on such classics as fish and chips, clam chowder, crab cakes, lobster rolls, seafood buckets, cioppino, iceberg lettuce salad, flat iron steaks, sandwiches, po’ boys, and burgers.
For our first visit, I made a Saturday reservation at the only time available online: 5:30 p.m. The place was half-empty inside when we arrived, with plenty of seats at the outdoor communal tables, as well. Our superbly informative, pleasant, and efficient server, Erica, explained that Jack’s took reservations only for 5:30, and after that it was all walk-in. That has since changed, and the Open Table drop-down menu now offers options through lunch and dinner.
Oysters will likely be a main draw at Jack’s. Between Robin and me, though, only one of us craves raw seafood. So I ordered my own trio of the day’s featured oysters ($1.50 each before 6 p.m.). They looked lonely on their large bed of ice, with three delicious sauces that could have doused a dozen or more, and several lemon wedges. But they packed a sweet and briny punch as I savored each one while sipping a tall, cucumber-flavored Mezcal 101 ($12). Thankfully, Robin has learned to love mussels, because the big bowl of roasted PEIs ($14), with two toasts, and ample handfuls of chorizo and escargots tossed in, posed a daunting challenge. These were gargantuan mollusks, almost grotesquely plump, but they were perfectly cooked, and delicious in a fine albeit unexceptional broth.
“Large” was definitely the theme of the meal. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have been able to finish my half order of charred octopus ($22), a mass of four thick, seared legs, half-body attached, curled over and around scrumptiously oily potatoes and piquillo peppers, spiced with pimenton. The meat of this Spanish cephalopod (not very local) was so perfectly cooked and accented, I couldn’t stop. I felt like the Man v. Food Guy as I washed bite after bite down with a six-ounce glass of a good-enough Peregrine Ranch Pinot Noir ($12) from the limited selections of “keg wine.” At our later visit, I watched someone attack the whole octopus ($40). Food won.
Food, in the form of cioppino ($17), defeated Robin, too. The broth may have been unremarkable (tomato, garlic, and spices needed to be jacked up), but there was so much seafood—a couple of giant shrimp, a large chunk of salmon, a bounty of calamari, and yet more mussels—that almost half of it was homeward bound as leftovers.