In the Sonoma County dining scene, Healdsburg usually gets the most attention for its many worthy restaurants. Yet take a look at Petaluma these days, and you’ll see this quaint town is experiencing a boom of its own. Recent notable additions include 256 North, Brewster’s Beer Garden, Drawing Board, SlamBurger, several great bakeries, and The Block food truck and beer garden with its ambitious lineup of high-quality mobile vendors.
Then, there’s The Shuckery, which opened last August. Tucked in the corner of the historic 1923 Hotel Petaluma at Washington and Kentucky streets, it’s reason enough to celebrate the city’s burgeoning food scene nearly on its own.
Often, when out-of-the-area friends visit me at my Wine Country home, they tell me they’re craving seafood. With the Pacific Ocean just minutes away, we must be rich with delicious fish, they muse quite reasonably.
Except that most restaurant menus in these parts showcase more local chicken, beef and pork (unless you’re dining at the seafood’s source, Bodega Bay). So what a treat that The Shuckery focuses on daily catches like local rockfish, plus salmon, trout, calamari and scallops.
And there are oysters, lots of oysters. Of course there are, because the restaurant is an extension of owners (and sisters) Aluxa and Jazmine Lalicker’s original business, Oyster Girls catering, which sets up fresh shucking stands at area events. Here, the raw selection varies daily in a span from California to British Columbia, with options for shallot-sprinkled barbecue and Rockefeller, too.
It feels cosmopolitan, sitting at the bar with its clever blue and green fish scale design and digging into The Shuckery Plateau ($48), a changing selection of seafood that also includes several kinds of regular menu appetizers. Big metal bowls of ice brim with a couple of Louisiana white shrimp, curls of pink-orange house-smoked trout, a half dozen mussels, a bowl of poke tumbled with sesame ponzu and wakame, rock cod ceviche in mildly spiced, citrus-chile-kissed red pepper coulis, and house-made corn tortilla chips. We can add oysters ($2 each), and dress everything as we like with lemon, drawn butter, thick and tangy housemade cocktail sauce, mignonette and Tabasco.
Add a bottle of Iron Horse Ocean Reserve Blanc de Blancs for a total of $100 as a special with the platter, and you almost don’t need to order anything else for a meal.
But the open kitchen does a fine job with the cooked dishes, too. My whole roasted trout ($30) was crisp-skinned from the skillet just as I love, the flavor shining through with a simple plating of green olive tapenade, raw and grilled lemon, fried capers and the crowning touch: a shower of pea tendrils and dollops of compound butter melting into the skin.
Pan-seared salmon didn’t have the crispy skin I crave – maybe because I forgot to request it be cooked that way – but the meaty chunk was perfectly cooked and nicely fatty, set atop a loose bed of risotto dotted with tomato confit and diced spring vegetables ($28). The risotto had a bit of crunchy crust, while a scattering of shallots added more texture.
I also liked the Nicoise salad ($15), a petite portion of albacore tuna confit arranged with roasted bell pepper, Kalamata olives, haricots verts, cherry tomatoes, potato, a bit of romaine and delectable six-minute egg all moistened in house Champagne vinaigrette.
Shrimp and grits, on the other hand, weren’t my favorite, since the mild Parmesan herb polenta didn’t add much flavor to the under-seasoned sautéed shrimp. Bits of house-cured Tasso ham added nice salty notes, but overall, the dish left me craving a more Low Country butter and bacon recipe.
But then, shucks, this isn’t a Low Country kind of place. It’s elegant, from the entrance of ornate scroll work and an antique door, to the fresh flowers in Ball jars on the wood tables, to the wine list that’s creative with offerings like a California Orange Blossom sparkling mead from Heidrun Meadery of Point Reyes ($42 bottle).
Servers, too, are a step above a typical casual oyster bar, even as they can run slow on busy weekend nights. Mine apologized, explaining staff was in the weeds — or was that seaweed?
So let’s all go ahead, and get in the swim with The Shuckery.
Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.