The lead-up to the 2019 Arcata Bay Oyster Festival was a lot.
Local beer brewers were once again shut out of the plaza taps when event organizer Arcata Main Street made an exclusive deal with Crescent City's SeaQuake Brewing, prompting backlash and the alternative Shuck Yeah event at Eel River Brewing Co. Then, a mere two days before the festival booths went up, a math error in a bacteria count led health officials to temporarily close Humboldt Bay's oyster fisheries and warn vendors and restaurants not to serve our local bivalves before quickly rescinding the warnings and declaring Humboldt oysters safe to eat. Head Oystress Sydney Morrone said she hadn't heard of any oysters actually dumped in the pre-festival panic but this was a close enough call for everyone. In fact, before the oysters were tested and declared safe Friday, organizers were already working on shipping in more than 100,000 alternate oysters from Oregon. Happily, it wasn't necessary and the oysters on the plaza — and up for judging — were homegrown.
Despite the drama, early estimates from Arcata Main Street come in with just under 12,000 attendees milling around the plaza with paper boats of oysters and trying to avoid that drunk fool spilling his beer on everyone's shoes. Yeah, I see you, jackass.
This year the 14 judges, myself included, were glamping out in a tent where SeaQuake beer and Cook's sparkling wine — once forbidden during judging — flowed freely as "oystresses" glided in and out with paper trays and platters of oysters. (See the slideshow at www.northcoastjournal.com for a full perusal of the contestants.) We were informed that the five points for presentation would be restricted to the look of the single oysters in their shells, not the serving plates — which, in years past, have included flashing LED lights, a model of Atlantis and a working carousel.
Best Cooked Oyster was the broadest field with eight contenders. The entries ran the gamut from thick, bubbling sauces to fruity vinaigrettes and yes, a little butter and lemon. In the end, Blue Lake Casino and Hotel repeated its 2018 win, this time with a sweet and spicy barbecue sauce, a little miso, wasabi and "dancing" bonito flakes that curl in contact with moisture.
Perhaps because it doesn't carry the same cachet as the oyster prizes, Best Non-Oyster only found three entrants. But the winner was a standout. Again, Blue Lake Casino and Hotel scored with a fried wonton "tostada" with spicy tuna, jalapeño, avocado, aioli and eel sauce.
Best in Show once again went to the perennially high-scoring Sushi Spot, which won over palates with a raw Goose Point in sesame-lime vinaigrette with peppered avocado puree, cilantro oil, crushed Himalayan salt, lime zest and sambal, as well as its cooked oyster in creamy garlic-kimchee sauce with pineapple, cilantro, sesame, scallion, seven-spice and habanero-infused masago. I'll give judges the benefit of the doubt for the raw but any of us who say we didn't recognize the cooked as a signature — and very good — Sushi Spot oyster are sleeping or pulling your leg.
The number of oyster contest entrants has been steadily shrinking in recent years. The competition for Best Raw Oyster came down to a mere four entries, down from last year's five and nearly double that in 2015. Notable was the total absence of shooters — are shooters over? Discuss. In any case, first-timers Fregoso's Comida Mexicana came away victorious with an "al pastor" marinated Kumamoto with grilled pineapple salsa. Well, sort of first-timers — much of the same team was in place at Savory when it won in 2017.
This was, for me, the best offering of the day, and one that chef David Velasco came up with on his first try. "We're a Mexican restaurant," he said. "I feel like all the Mexican ingredients are in the oyster, you know, the pineapple, the guajillo peppers for the pastor marinade, the habanero peppers." The result was the total package, a beautiful oyster dressed in color, the sweetness of fruit, a little heat and tang, all without masking the light brine and sweet, creamy meat our fresh oysters are prized for the world over. And that's the trick of both oysters and Oyster Fest that's so hard to pull off — making something exciting without crushing the very thing that made it special in the first place.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.